Monday, December 4, 2023

Landmark Lost: The Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition Part 2

A view of several of the state buildings as depicted on a postcard from the Jamestown Exposition (Wikimedia)

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part addition to our limited series, Landmark Lost. To read Part 1 about the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition, click here!

HAMPTON ROADS — In 1907, the Tidewater’s only World’s Fair, the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition, was in honor of the three hundredth anniversary of the landing at Jamestown. The fair was held in Norfolk, built atop the former scrub woods of Sewell’s Point. It was a grand military exposition, with soldiers, sailors and marines taking residence at the fair on various days. There were also exhibit buildings that showcased industrial, electric, and mechanical innovations.

States on Display

The Pennsylvania Building at the Jamestown Exposition, was a scaled reconstruction of Independence Hall in Philadelphia (Library of Congress)

On the fairgrounds, there was a small neighborhood of sorts, with homes dedicated to a particular state that paid money for its construction. Each building was meant to represent its state somehow. The one for Georgia was based on the home where President Theodore Roosevelt’s mother was born, the one for Virginia was built as an idealized version of a plantation home in the Commonwealth, Pennsylvania constructed a two-thirds scale recreation of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, while Kentucky diverged from the typical neo-colonial architecture by building a reproduction of Daniel Boone’s fort.

Each state house was a physical exhibition of the great things from each place, including art and innovations that may tempt a guest to come and visit or move to that state.

Meet Me at the Warpath

The administration building at the Jamestown Exposition illuminated the night sky (Massachusetts Collections Online)

Cutting through the center of the fairgrounds was a thoroughfare known as “The Warpath.” Here is where some of the more exotic attractions existed. Ponies were found in a corral and performing tricks, a camel-riding “princess” perused through what was supposed to resemble a Middle Eastern bazaar, and guests were able to pan for gold in a simulated “Klondike.”

To scare the polite sensibilities of the early twentieth century patrons, there was an attraction called, “Hell’s Gate.” Riders would board small boats and take a ride through a darkened building filled with whirlpools, bats, and other “scary animals.”

There were other attractions like a theater which featured a simulation of the 1862 battle between the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia, a building that housed preemies on display in early versions of incubators, and another that simulated the great earthquake in San Francisco the year before.

Also situated along this thoroughfare were several dining establishments. There was a four-star restaurant called the Marine Restaurant and, keeping up with the elaborate theming of the fair, was a restaurant inside a building meant to look like the Swiss Alps.

What made it truly a World’s Fair were the foreign representations on exhibit. There were tea rooms, villages, and many other sites associated with an idyllic representation of places from around the world that the fair’s guests may never have the opportunity to visit.

Aside from President Roosevelt, many celebrities of the day like Mark Twain, William Randolph Hearst and Robert Fulton traversed the fairgrounds.

At night, guests were treated to an awesome display of electricity as buildings and streets were lit with bright electricity, something that was quite rare in this part of the country at the time.

A Segregated Fair

The “Negro Building,” which was segregated from the rest of the Exposition grounds. This building had many exhibits about African-American history, culture, and art.

What is important to keep in mind is that the fair ran during a time when Jim Crow-ism was rampant in America’s south. The Exposition may have seemed amazing, but that wasn’t the case for everyone.

One of the ways that the Exposition received monetary support from the federal government was to make sure that there was a building for Black Americans. The Negro Building was designed and built by Black Americans, both the interior and the five-acre lot exterior was devoted to exhibiting highlights of Black culture, innovations, inventions, and prominent figures in Black American history. Famed author, educator and orator, Booker T. Washington, visited the Negro Building and it is said that in President Theodore Roosevelt’s two visits to the Exposition, this was the only building in which he toured.

Aside from segregation, the largest concern with this building was that there were exhibits that were considered enhancing the negative stereotypes of Black Americans that permeated in mainstream America.

A Futile Failure

The abandoned Jamestown Exposition fairgrounds circa 1917 (Naval History and Heritage Command)

There were many failings of the Exposition. It wasn’t considered complete until September 1907.

When the gates closed for the last time on November 30, 1907, the fair that seemed a success was far from. Despite having approximately 1.2 million visitors during its short life span, the Exposition ended around $900,000 in debt (adjusted for inflation, the equivalent of approximately $24 million in 2021) with a loss of $648,000 in revenue (or just over $17 million in today’s dollar).

A Salt Lake City, Utah newspaper described the reason for this financial devastation as “mismanagement and carelessness.”

The Jamestown Exposition Company was forced to declare bankruptcy and sold the land to Fidelity Land & Investment Company.

With buildings never meant for permanence, the quiet of Sewell’s Point took over the once magical surroundings, leaving it an abandoned, depressed shell of what the Exposition was meant to be.

New Life for the Exposition

As local memory began to fade around the ten year anniversary of the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition, America was entering into a new fate — World War I.

The U.S. Navy needed a central operations base and turned towards Norfolk. There left standing in quiet disrepair were the remains of what was once the area’s only World’s Fair. The Navy bought up the land, hoping to use many of the existing buildings for its new, makeshift base.

Since many of the structures were not meant to be permanent, the Navy was forced to tear them down. However, fifteen state houses, the palaces for history and historical art, the Baker’s Chocolate House, educational and commercial industry buildings met muster and were spared.

Thus a new life for the Exposition was born.

A Military Fair to a Military Base

Naval Station Norfolk circa 2011 (Courtesy of U.S. Navy)

Now, the largest U.S. naval installation in the world, Naval Station Norfolk, has maintained the history and heritage of the base’s beginnings while finding practical uses for the historic buildings.

The former state homes, still with their given names, are part of Admiral’s Row where high ranking officers now reside. The Palace of Historical Art now houses a gym and the wings of the original auditorium serve as administrative buildings.

With modern jets flying in the air where dirigibles once ascended over a century ago and nuclear powered aircraft carriers where steam once proved its prevalence over sail, Naval Station Norfolk is truly a place where history meets modern day.

While the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition is an interesting footnote to the history of our region and a landmark that is lost, in a way, it isn’t. If you’re able to go onboard Naval Station Norfolk, drive around and look for hints of the neocolonial architecture. There the ghosts of the Exposition remain, not lost, but mostly forgotten.

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