the flop heard round the world -- 1/17/20

Today's selection -- from Wicked Philadelphia by Thomas Keels. The 1926 world's fair in Philadelphia, conducted to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and known as the Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition or the "Sesqui," was a dismal failure, referred to as "the flop heard round the world":

"When the Sesqui took its last breath at midnight on January 1, 1927, it was a ghost town. On the Forum of the Founders, the once-colorful palaces and pylons stood tall and gaunt and silent. The metal skeleton of the still­ unfinished Tower of Light overlooked the deserted landscape, the tiny searchlight tacked on top extinguished forever. No ceremonies marked the official closing. A single attendant locked the main gate and walked home in the rain.

"But the real excitement of the Sesqui was just beginning, as its managers tallied the damages. Originally, the Sesqui-Centennial Exposition Association had expected between 25 and 30 million visitors. Instead, paid admissions totaled 4,622,211, less than half than had paid to see the Centennial fifty years before. [Philadelphia Mayor W. Freeland] Kendrick and the other managers attempted to put a brave face on the figures. Despite low attendance, they estimated that the Sesqui deficit would be $200,000, a painful but manageable sum.

"And then the bills began to pour in, from all of the architects, designers, builders, suppliers, performers and exhibitors who had helped to create the Rainbow City. There were also bills and lawsuits from property owners who had leased their land to the Sesqui and were complaining of damages. Among the latter group was one William S. Vare.

"The size of the Sesqui deficit spiraled upward to nearly $6 million. More than four hundred creditors were represented by George C. Klauder, law partner of Harry A. Mackey, who was also city treasurer ('conflict of interest' was a relatively foreign concept in 1920s Philadelphia). Unable to cope with the flood of red ink, the Sesqui-Centennial Exposition Association declared bankruptcy, The auction price for a $1,000 Sesqui bond, of the kind purchased by hundreds of average Philadelphians to support their world's fair, collapsed to $40.

"Mayor Kendrick ordered the city government to uphold its promise to make good on all Sesqui debts. But City Controller Will B. Hadley, who had his eye on the mayor's office, claimed that many fair bills were fraudulent and a ruse to enrich Kendrick's political cronies. He went so far as to subpoena the mayor and to sue for release of the fair's financial records. But the untouchable Kendrick avoided any legal action. Instead, he did an end-run around Hadley, persuading the state legislature to pass a bill authorizing the City Council to settle all Sesqui debts.

"To help pay the bills, the city government held the Great Yard Sale of 1927, a massive auction of Sesqui structures and goods that ran through March and April. The auction took place on the desolate fairgrounds, where waist­ high weeds surrounded the crumbling pavilions. In the frenzied, uncontrolled bidding, properties were sold for pennies on the dollar -- sometimes pennies on the hundreds of dollars.

"The Sesqui managers had spent $3 million to build the fair's five main palaces. Their combined auction proceeds were approximately $61,000, or 2 percent of their original cost. The twenty-thousand-seat auditorium had been designed as a permanent structure to serve South Philadelphia after the fair ended. Built at a cost of $500,000, it was sold for $11,000, dismantled and shipped to a Bronx amusement park. The auditorium organ -- one of the largest in the world, purchased for $150,000 -- was almost sold to a curio dealer for $1,250. At the last moment, publisher Cyrus H.K. Curtis bought it for a much larger sum and donated it to the University of Pennsylvania.

"The Pennsylvania State Building -- considered the most architecturally significant structure at the fair -- was sold for $9,274 and demolished for its steel. It had originally cost $490,000. The Taj Mahal, given to the City of Philadelphia by the merchants of India, was sold for $600. The Cuban, Japanese and Spanish pavilions, also donated by their host nations, each fetched less than $200.

"The Sesqui's two landmarks -- the Liberty Bell and the Tower of Light -- suffered particularly ignoble fates. After the fair ended, both structures had become dormitories for local tramps. The giant bell, with its twenty-six thousand light bulbs, ninety-seven tons of steel and miles of copper wire, was sold for $60 and dismantled. The incomplete Tower of Light, nicknamed 'the Light that Failed,' fetched $1,050. The bare steel skeleton had cost the city $365,093 before it gave up on it.

"All of the fair buildings were either demolished or moved, with five exceptions: Sesqui Stadium (renamed John F. Kennedy Stadium in 1964 and demolished in 1992), the John Morton Memorial (finished in 1927 and now the American Swedish Historical Museum), a model recreation center (today a Fairmount Park facility) and a concrete gazebo and boathouse (built when League Island Park was partially developed in 1914, recycled for the Sesqui and still standing beside Edgewater Lake). From the sale of over $10 million worth of Sesqui assets, the city realized roughly $375,000.

"In 1936, a reporter visited the Sesqui site on the tenth anniversary of the world's fair. She found a bleak, desolate landscape in the shadow of the United States Naval Hospital. On the concrete floor of the former auditorium, Philadelphians ruined by the Depression lived in tar-paper shacks, surrounded by automobile graveyards.

"In the final analysis, Philadelphia spent over $23 million on the fair and lost nearly $10 million. Kendrick was able to float a bond issue to cover the expenses. But the costs of the Sesqui -- along with the parkway, Broad Street Subway, Free Library, Museum of Art and other major construction projects of the high-flying '20s -- drove Philadelphia to near-bankruptcy once the Depression hit."



Thomas H. Keels


Wicked Philadelphia


The History Press


Copyright 2010 by Thomas H. Keels


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