A Photographic Tour of the Wonders That World’s Fairs Leave Behind

Jade Doskow goes to old World’s Fair sites and photographs the remnants of once glorious visions

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Buckminster Fuller's Geodesic Dome, 1967 World Exposition, Montreal Jade Doskow

Jade Doskow takes pictures of optimism frozen in time.

For almost 10 years, the New York-based photographer has traveled around the planet to the sites where millions once gathered for World's Fairs. She has photographed the remnants of visions past, the architectural wonders and landscapes that celebrated human glory and potential. 

Some, such as the Eiffel Tower or the replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, have held on to their magic, still able to inspire awe. But others have become neglected curiosities in a world that has moved on.

"These buildings exist in a very weird limbo, often in prominent locations. No one wants to tear them down. But how much money do you want to put into them to keep them around?" says Doskow. A book of her photography, titled Lost Utopias, will be published this fall.

The Tent of Tomorrow, 1964 World’s Fair, New York

Philip Johnson’s "Tent of Tomorrow" was once a brightly-colored spectacle with a terrazzo floor featuring a road map of the state of New York. But the structure was badly overgrown when Doskow photographed it in 2007. Nearby, and equally rundown, were the other remaining relics of that fair’s New York Pavillion, including Johnson's “Astro-View” observation towers, which had a memorable cameo in the1997 movie Men in Black.

To Doskow, it felt surreal, melancholy and oddly beautiful.

“Do I think it’s Philip Johnson’s finest work? No,” she says. “Do I think it’s the most spectacular world’s fair structure I’ve ever seen? No. But it’s still fascinating on many levels.”

In honor of that World Fair’s 50th anniversary, the Tent of Tomorrow received a facelift in 2014, including a fresh paint job. While it was briefly opened to the public, visitors had to wear hard hats. But now it looks like the once decaying building could get a new life. In March, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced a design competition to re-imagine a purpose for these symbols of the future.  

Geodesic Dome, 1967 World Exposition, Montreal

Before she arrived at the site of Buckminster Fuller’s most famous geodesic dome, Doskow wasn’t sure how she would photograph it. Spheres, even one more than 200 feet high, are notoriously difficult to shoot since they usually offer no interesting angles.

But, she says, she was lucky that day back in 2012. Because nearby was a funny little house with plants and vines spreading out from its windows. 

“It really captured my imagination,” she remembers. “It kind of looked like it had facial hair. I nicknamed it the eyebrow-moustache house.”

It turned out that the tiny house had won a design competition among architecture students, because it best reflected Fuller’s ideas about sustainability through design. But it was meant to be temporary. When Doskow returned, it was gone.

“Things appear and disappear around these structures,” she says. “It just happened to be a great moment of synchronicity that I was there when this little house was there, a house that had been designed to be seen with the geodesic dome.”

The dome itself has gone through its own changes. A fire in 1976 burned away its acrylic skin, and for more than 15 years, the structure was closed to the public. But it was revitalized after the Canadian government purchased it in 1990. Now it houses the Biosphere of Montreal, a museum dedicated to the environment. 

The Atomium, 1958 World’s Fair, Brussels

The Atomium, unveiled in Brussels in 1958, was all about forgetting the past—particularly World War II. It was the centerpiece of the first World’s Fair since the war ended, a massive replica of an atom meant to celebrate the dawn of the atomic age. And its designer, André Waterkeyn, was obviously thinking big.

The Atomium—a combination of “atom” and “aluminum”—was built to be 165 billion times larger than an actual iron atom, resulting in a structure more than 330 feet high. It consists of nine spheres, each 60 feet wide, connected by 20 tubes equipped with escalators and stairs.

“There was this explosive enthusiasm for science and technology and leaving Old Europe behind,” Doskow notes. “I’m sure that this must have been an exciting thing to witness back then.”

But as with many World’s Fair showpieces, the Atomium lost its patina and fell into disrepair.  It became badly rundown, corroded and covered with pigeon droppings. But early this century, the Belgian government decided to refurbish it, and in 2006, the Atomium reopened to the public.

Doskow took this photo after that, and admits that she regrets her timing a bit. “It was in a pretty amazing state of dilapidation for a while,” she says. “I wish I would have had a time machine to go back and photograph it then.”

Instead, she focused on an odd juxtaposition she discovered at the site. A tourist attraction again, the Atomium is now flanked by an amusement park called “Little Europe.” The building in the foreground is part of that park. “There was actually a Pizza Hut in that building,” Doskow says. “So there are all these levels of cultural tourism brought together in that picture.” 

The Monorail, 1962 World’s Fair, Seattle

Not surprisingly, it was raining when Doskow visited Seattle, or as she put it, “pouring, pouring, pouring,” which made it that much more challenging to photograph the Seattle Monorail, one of the remaining relics of the 1962 World’s Fair. (The Space Needle is another.)

Plans to extend the Monorail’s track beyond its original 1.3 miles never came to fruition, but there has been one notable change on its route. It now runs through the middle of the Experience Music Project, the strange-looking music and science fiction museum designed by architect Frank Gehry and built around the elevated train track in 2000.

That provided Doskow with the kind of curious mix she was looking for, resulting in what she calls “one of my stranger pictures.”

“You have this 1962 monorail traveling through this wildly-colored museum,” she says. “I wanted to this show this weird new construction around a still existing world’s fair tourist attraction, to show a new use of the site as well as these older relics still being utilized.”

The Parthenon, 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition, Nashville

One trend that Doskow has seen during her project is that 19th century expositions tended to celebrate the past, while 20th century fairs usually played out imaginings about the future.

In 1897, Nashville stayed true to the pattern, and in a way that boosted its nickname “The Athens of the South.” It built its own Parthenon, a replica of the one atop the Acropolis in Greece, albeit one made of plaster and wood.

The building was supposed to be temporary, but the people of Nashville grew attached to it and didn’t want to see the structure torn down. By 1931, it was reconstructed out of concrete, to give it more permanence.

“It’s quite astonishing when you arrive in Nashville and you see this Parthenon that’s obviously in better shape than the one in Athens,” says Doskow. “It’s fascinating how it’s become part of the urban fabric of Nashville. It’s been absorbed into the landscape. You go there and you see people just jogging by it.”

Habitat, 1967 World’s Fair, Montreal

Doskow has seen many iconoclastic structures during her photographic odyssey, but one that particularly struck her was the only World’s Fair structure in which people actually live.

It’s Habitat 67, now simply known as Habitat. Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie designed the futuristic model for urban housing when he was a student at McGill University in Montreal. His concept revolved around a stack of prefabricated concrete units, arranged in different combinations and meant to serve as a model for a new kind of inexpensive urban apartment building. While geared to densely-populated areas, Habitat added features that made the units feel more suburban, such as private terraces and gardens.

The Canadian government built Safdie's creation along the banks of the St. Lawrence River. The collection of 158 apartments—it has since been reduced to 146 by doubling up some units—was largely hailed as a bold rethinking of urban living. 

Habitat, however, did not result in the dramatic transformation of urban design Safdie had envisioned. It remains largely an outlier among the world’s multi-unit residential buildings. But, says Doskow, it has made its mark.

“It inspired a different way of thinking about having private outdoor space for living units in a densely-populated city,” she says. “That was very forward-thinking and affected a lot of design and architecture.”

The building, now almost 50 years old, is still in good shape. In fact, two-cube units—all the apartments have been converted to condominiums—now sell for around $500,000, more than 25 percent higher than the average price of a home in Montreal.

During her visit, Doskow did see some cracked concrete and a few other signs of aging to be expected in a structure half a century old. “So there was a bit of this clash between utopia and dystopia,” she says.

Eiffel Tower, Trocadéro, and Palais de Chaillot, 1889 and 1937 World's Fairs, Paris

No World’s Fair creation is as widely recognized—or photographed—as the Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.

That presented Doskow with a challenge—how not to have her photo be, as she put it, the “obvious postcard picture.”

While it was widely criticized when it was erected and survived plans to tear it down in 1909, largely due to its value as a radiotelegraph station, the Eiffel Tower now attracts more visitors than any monument with an admissions fee in the world, and that doesn’t count all those who are satisfied to simply go to the Champ de Mars and gaze upward. Also, it has been replicated, to some degree, more than 30 times around the world, including on the Las Vegas Strip.  

So Doskow looked for a way to present a different perspective.

“From my research, it was clear that Paris, more than any other city, had an elegant vision to use and reuse the site,” she says. “That site was used multiple times. The two buildings flanking the Eiffel Tower in the photo were constructed later for the Paris Exposition of 1937. So I wanted to show the hordes of tourists lining up for the Eiffel Tower, but also how these later structures were built very thoughtfully to frame it.”

Doskow adds, “A lot of the sites in America that I’ve visited feel pretty arbitrary in terms of how new buildings and landscaping react to existing World’s Fair structures. The Parisians were more forward-thinking about how to use the site.”

California Building, 1915 Panama-California Exposition, San Diego

Doskow loves the story behind the exposition the city of San Diego staged in 1915.

San Francisco, anxious to show the world it had recovered from its catastrophic earthquake in 1906, planned its own international exposition the same year. And, it seemed to have all the advantages, including 10 times as many residents as San Diego and the endorsement of President William Howard Taft and Congress. Plus, in deference to the “official” status of San Francisco’s exposition, San Diego had to leave the word “international” out of the title of its event.

But the city pressed on, tying its event to the opening of the Panama Canal and how San Diego was the first U.S. city where ships heading west stopped after passing through the canal. “It’s such an example of civic pride,” says Doskow. “They decided to give it their all.”

Fair organizers began a facelift of a 640-acre chunk of City Park, renaming it Balboa Park. Its centerpiece became the California Building, an ornate tribute to the city’s culture and history.

“It's all in Spanish-Colonial style, with Moorish inspirations” Doskow says. “It’s very impressive in scale and has wonderful sculptural elements—all the tile and mosaics.”

Today the California Building is the San Diego Museum of Man. It’s one of several structures from the fair still standing, including the Botanical Building, the Fine Arts Building and the Cabrillo Bridge. In San Francisco, only the Palace of Fine Arts remains from that city’s 1915 celebration. 

Washrooms, 1876 Centennial International Exhibition, Philadelphia

When the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition—the first World’s Fair to be held in the U.S.—opened in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, it comprised more than 250 buildings. Today, only four are left.

That includes Memorial Hall, the fair’s art museum, which was restored and reopened in 2008 as the Please Touch Museum, and the Ohio House, built from 20 types of Ohio stone.

Then there are these two former bathrooms. They were once connected to the Fair’s Horticultural Hall, but it fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1955 after being damaged in a hurricane.

So, when Doskow visited in 2008, this is what she saw.

“It gives you an idea of how strange the remnants of a World’s Fair can sometimes be,” she says.  “When I shot this picture, there was a plea for donors to adopt the buildings so they could be renovated. There was still an attachment to these charming, funny little buildings. But they were just sitting there in this strange limbo existence.”

Now, the two bathrooms have been given a new life. Through funding from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, they’ve been renovated, and in 2012, became part of the Sakura Pavilion, near the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in Fairmount Park. 

One is even being used for classes on tea ceremonies and flower arranging. 

Forms in Transit, 1964 World’s Fair, New York

Artist Theodore Roszak's large sculpture of aluminum, steel tubes and sheet metal was meant to convey a jet aircraft in flight, and also the concept of motion and change. But, according to Doskow, it wasn’t a favorite of the person running the 1964 World’s Fair, New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses.

"Moses had an optimistic vision for the fair and he was not thrilled with this sculpture because he felt it looked like a relic,” says Doskow.

Nor has it aged particularly well. Parts of a damaged wing were removed in 1970 and sections of the metal sculpture have become corroded. Plus, its setting now could hardly be described as uplifting.

"Well, the sculpture's so big and couldn’t really be moved, so now it sits in the middle of a parking lot roundabout and with this strange overgrown hedge around it," she says. “I just love those kinds of little details.”   

Flight Cage, 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis

This aviary that remains one of the more popular attractions of the St. Louis Zoo was not supposed to stay in the city. The huge bird cage was built at a cost of $17,500 to be the Smithsonian Institution’s exhibit at the fair celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase.

Walk-through aviaries were rare at the time and it also was the largest in the world—longer than two basketball courts and with a dome 50 feet high. The plan, however, was to move the cage to the National Zoo in Washington after the fair closed.

But that never happened. The city of St. Louis was given the option to buy the cage at a bargain price of $3,500. This was minus the birds, so the city’s parks commissioner needed to improvise. He bought some ducks and geese and added some owls donated by local residents.

This modest beginning, nonetheless, helped spur the birth of the St. Louis Zoo. In 1916, St. Louis became the first city in the world to use taxpayers’ dollars to build a zoo. Since then, the aviary has undergone three renovations, but it’s one of the few World’s Fair structures to maintain its original purpose.

“The St. Louis Zoo is a gorgeous place, and they have a lot of wild foliage along the pathways so it doesn’t feel landscaped,” Doskow says. “I was given permission to go in and shoot pictures at 6 in the morning. It was drizzly, and it was just me and these very large, loud birds. I was surrounded by wildlife while capturing this structure that was very much not a part of wildlife. It was really an exotic experience.”

Nothingness, 1893 Columbian Exposition, Chicago

Of all the World's Fairs held in the United States, the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago probably had the greatest impact on American culture. Not only was it where visitors got their first look at technological wonders like the dishwasher and fluorescent lights, but it also was when a number of soon popular brands, such as Cream of Wheat, Juicy Fruit gum and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer were introduced. The world’s first Ferris Wheel was unveiled there, too.

“When the fair was constructed, it was so magnificent,” Doskow says. “It was the first time electricity had been prominently used so you had all these buildings twinkling with light.”

There’s little question that it helped put Chicago on the map as a serious metropolis. And yet only one building from that momentous event survived—the Palace of Fine Arts, which was restored and reopened as the Museum of Science and Industry in 1933. 

After the fair ended, and as city officials were still deliberating on which of the buildings to keep, a fire destroyed most of them.

“I thought that was a compelling notion, that you had this huge mythic presence, but there’s so little left,” says Doskow. “There was something very poignant about that.”

So she mapped out where the largest structure at the fair, the Manufacturer’s Liberal Arts Building, once stood on the banks of Lake Michigan.

“I did a very long exposure—about 25 or 30 minutes—to capture the wind and the movement on the trees at that spot. And that’s this picture. It’s very abstract, but I thought it was an interesting way to illustrate the idea of absolute nothingness.”