GREAT LAKES EXPOSITION (1936-37) Planned to coincide with the centennial of Cleveland's incorporation and help draw the city out of the Great Depression, by the time the Great Lakes Exposition had drawn to a close in 1937, the Expo had attracted 7 million visitors to the downtown area. The Expo had all the feel of a real World’s Fair, without the official title.
Community activist Frank J. Ryan, and Cleveland’s first Public Hall Commissioner, Lincoln G. Dickey, dreamed up the idea, and Cleveland businessman and philanthropist DUDLEY S. BLOSSOM, became chairman of a civic committee that raised $1.5 million (About $30 million in 2021 dollars) to transform the idea into reality. The Federal Government chipped in to help build the Expo by providing WORKS PROGRESS ADMINISTRATION workers.
Built on a landfill in an area used as a dumping grounds, the 135-acre Expo extended east along the Lakefront from the CLEVELAND MUNICIPAL STADIUM at W. 3rd St. to E. 20th St. and south to St. Clair Avenue encompassing the MALL and the PUBLIC AUDITORIUM. This choice also served another function, which was to displace the unemployed who had set up a tent city, known as “Tin Can Plaza,” along the lakefront.
The plans for the Expo were announced in November 1935, and the organizers broke ground the following March. It took three thousand workers just 80 days to construct the buildings, toilet facilities, sewers, gas, water, electricity, streets, and sidewalks to support an average Expo attendance of 35,000 visitors a day. Visitors could choose from over 40 restaurants offering an enormous array of food. The person chosen to head the construction job was Albert N. Gonsior, Chief of Construction for the Chicago World’s Fair three years earlier.
On June 27, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially opened the Expo by pressing a button in Washington D.C., while MOSES CLEAVELAND’s descendant, Marguerite Bacon, cut the ribbon on-site. The Expo was planned to be a 100-day run, but the organizers kept it open for 108 days the first year and then extended it into 1937 for another 121 days. General Admission was 50 cents ($9.50 in 2021 dollars). An additional admission fee was charged to enter the Streets of the World amusement area, The Horticultural Building, Globe Theatre, rides, and some exhibits.
The Expo grounds were divided into three areas: The Upper Level, The Lower Level, and the Streets of the World amusement section.
The grand entrance on St. Claire Avenue just west of E. 6th street was flanked by seven towering brightly illuminated pylons. The grand entrance and six other entrances were designed by Anthony Salvatore, a professor at the Cleveland School of Architecture, who was awarded a prize for his design. ANTONIO DINARDO, another Italian-American architect, designed other structures on the Exposition grounds.
Beyond the entrance were full-size brick and wood model homes featuring the latest construction techniques and furnishings. Nearby was a reproduction of the log cabin where President JAMES GARFIELD was born and a replica of LORENZO CARTER’s tavern.
On the right was Public Auditorium, scene of the 1936 REPUBLICAN CONVENTION just a month before. The second floor of the Auditorium was redecorated and converted into Radioland, “the world’s largest broadcasting studio,” with a revolving stage and 12,000 seats. Fibber McGee and Molly, Ed Wynn, and other entertainers broadcast nightly from the facility, as did NBC, the Columbia and Mutual chain, and Cleveland’s stations WTAM, WJAY, WHK, and WGAR. The ground floor included The Hall of Great Lakes exhibit, where visitors looked down on a 30 foot in diameter relief map of the city showing Greater Cleveland from NEWBURGH HEIGHTS to ROCKY RIVER. More than 450,000 objects built to scale were arranged on the surface. Other popular spots included the Cleveland Police Department exhibit, where visitors could get an identification card bearing their fingerprints and see a demonstration of how bullets were made. The Fire Department exhibit featured the latest rescue and firefighting apparatus, and demonstrations of an oxygen inhalator and artificial respiration.
In the Lakeside Exhibition Hall, under the Mall between the CLEVELAND CITY HALL and the CUYAHOGA COUNTY COURTHOUSE was the heart of the exhibits at the Great Lakes Exposition – “The Romance of Iron and Steel.” The presentation traced the development of man’s mastery of iron to the modern blast furnace capable of producing 1,000 tons a day. From the mining of raw materials to the completion of steel and iron products, the exhibit offered visitors an intimate view of the nation’s steel industry.
Visitors entered the hall through “an authentic Minnesota mine shaft, set in the rugged, red hillside.” It was built-in the exact dimensions of an operating mine, right down to the timbers supporting the walls and ceiling. Further on, colored photo murals, life-size reproductions of equipment and machinery, working models, and dioramas told the story of iron and steel.
The exhibit included a realistic full-size blast furnace with a 125-ton ladle to pour the molten metal. Working models of a blooming mill, a two-story high automatic mill, a galvanizing mill, and other rolling and handling equipment, were part of the exhibit. A popular feature was the Youngstown Sheet and Tube 34-foot miniature, hot strip continuous mill, which rolled tiny metal slabs into sheets 1/32 inch thick. The Lakeside Exhibition Hall also included exhibits by Beechnut, Coca-Cola, Encyclopedia Britannica, H.J. Heinz, IBM, National Cash Register, and Scott Paper.
Above the Lakeside Exhibition Hall, the Great Lakes Symphony Orchestra and the Great Lakes Band played from the Symphony Shell on SHERWIN-WILLIAMS Plaza. Track and field Olympian and hometown hero, JESSE OWENS, Meinhardt Raabe (later known as “the world's most famous munchkin” and star of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz), Rudy Vallee and his band, Al Tomaini (the world’s tallest person), the Bob Crosby Orchestra, and Jimmy Durante also made appearances at the Expo.
North, towards the lake, a 100-foot-wide, 350-foot-long bridge, the Bridge of Presidents, crossed the railroad yard and led down to the Expo Lower level. One hundred booths lined the sides of the bridge. Sixteen of the booths were topped with giant eagles honoring the Presidents born in or elected from Great Lakes States.
Exiting the bridge was the Standard Drug, Christian Science Monitor, Porcelain Enamel, and Western Reserve buildings. Beyond on the left was the Cleveland Municipal Stadium (now FirstEnergy Stadium), with seating for 80,000 people and presenting “important athletic events almost daily.”
To the right were two huge buildings built just for the Expo: The Varied Industries Building, often called the Automotive Building, and the Hall of Progress Building.
The Varied Industries Building was made of steel and wood and surrounded by 22 towers. At the north end of the building was a collection of 351 automobile and truck emblems – “the most complete in existence.” A popular feature was a scientific driving test given by the STANDARD OIL COMPANY. Cars, trucks, and locomotives on loan from railroads, along with models of vehicles once made in Cleveland filled the exhibit. The WHITE MOTOR COMPANY offered a futuristic bus, their version of what public transportation would be like in 1950. A 225 seat motion picture theatre was part of one of the exhibits. Although the automotive industry filled most of the building, yachts, marine engines, and allied industries were displayed. The building had large exhibits from Buick, Cadillac, Delco Frigidaire Conditioning Corp., Ford, Greyhound, General Motors, Pennzoil, and the White Storage Battery Company
On the north, the flat-roofed Hall of Progress ran parallel to the Varied Industry Building and featured major exhibits by GENERAL ELECTRIC, Otis Elevator, Sears-Roebuck Co., United Air Lines, the U.S. Government Exhibit, Westinghouse, and the State of West Virginia.
The General Electric exhibit showed the varied use of lighting from insect traps and greenhouse lighting to airway beacons and surgery. A live owl, a bat, and a mole were used in one exhibit to show how animals adapt their habits to light. The exhibit also featured a 50,000-watt bulb, known as “the largest lamp in the world,” and a tiny 1/3-watt lamp used in stomach surgery. The Federal Government exhibit showed in graphic form the services rendered to taxpayers. Further on, philatelists could purchase envelopes with the official Expo cachet and have them postmarked.
East of the Hall of Progress stood the Firestone Tire & Rubber building with its singing fountains - the largest single sponsored exhibit at the Expo with 180,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space. South of the Firestone Building stood the HIGBEE Building, a large and modern full-size department store built around a central tower.
Next to the Higbee Building stood the State of Florida exhibit. The exhibit's center was a two-story Georgian Colonial frame house surrounded by citrus trees and exotic gardens. The exhibition featured the history of Florida as told through murals, sculptures, dioramas, and “spectoramas,” a combination of panoramas and spectacles.
The Expo took full advantage of its location on the shore of Lake Erie. Seaplane rides, a fleet of speed boats, launches, and paddle boats provided an opportunity to view the Expo and enjoy the breeze of Lake Erie.
Marine Plaza, an elaborate horticultural garden, extended the length of Municipal Stadium. Ten gardens symbolized Cleveland’s garden history. They ranged from simple garden plots through the elaborate gardens of the 1890s, War gardens with potatoes supplanting flowers, and the newest developments in gardening. At the head of the garden was a three-story Horticultural Building resembling the streamlined forward deck of an ocean liner. From the decks of the building, visitors could see a quarter-million square feet of hillside rock gardens, waterfalls, rare plants, a giant fountain, and reflecting pools along the Lake Erie shore. High diving experts, nationally famous swimmers, and American Olympians perform regular demonstrations.
The second Expo year, the Marine Plaza was replaced by Billy Rose's Aquacade - a music, dance, and swimming show starring Eleanor Holm, American competition swimmer and Olympic gold medalist, and Johnny Weissmuller, who had become famous playing Tarzan in movies. The Aquacade was so popular that it went to the 1939 - 1940 New York World's Fair.
A luxurious nightclub, Showboat, floated at anchor, and orchestras provided dance music while waiters in marine costumes served the best foods and drinks. Admiral Byrd's "South Pole ship" from his first expedition to the Antarctic, The City of New York, was tied to the dock. The decommissioned submarine S-49 was moored in the Coast Guard harbor opposite the Midway, near the Globe Theater.
Streets of the World and Amusement Area
For an additional charge, most visitors headed for the "Streets of the World" exhibit and the amusement area, stretching from East 9th to East 20th. The goal was to expose visitors to the traditional architecture, sights, sounds, and tastes of more than 30 countries. Passing through a re-created medieval castle that served as an entrance to Streets of the World, visitors could visit 150 buildings spread out over 10 acres. Exposition workers wearing clothing native to each country helped complete the experience.
The amusement area included a midway with rides and sideshows, an art gallery, and a Marine Theater. Visitors could listen to polka bands at the German Alpine Village, eat fried chicken at “Mammy’s Cabin,” or watch a Shakespearian Play in a replica of the Globe Theatre in London.
The unique attractions in the midway included the Custer Car Speedway; rickshaw rides; a Venetian boat swing; The World a Million Years Ago exhibit; Sportsman Paradise where you could fish for your dinner (cash prizes for catching a wall-eyed pike); Monkey Land; Television (where you could have a talking reproduction made of yourself); Maple Sugar Camp; Lion Motordrome (live lions perform while motorcycle riders speed along the walls and daredevil stunts); a snake show, the Four Lorenzos high wire act, and a Ripley's Believe it or Not Odditorium where oddities were displayed and sold. The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company provided blimp rides for visitors at the cost of $3.
The Exposition also included exhibits that would be considered offensive by modern standards, including 260-pound ballerinas, a midget circus, and nude can-can dancers (who were banned the second year).
The Expo was "a gorgeous fantasy of illumination in the evening." The November 1936 issue of The Ohio State Engineer noted there was a greater intensity of light per acre at the Great Lakes Expo than any exposition in American history. Cleveland, after all, was the center of the U.S. lighting industry, both in research and practice with NELA PARK research laboratories and the National Electric Light Association.
Initially planned for just one year, the organizers extended the Exposition into a second year, something that an official World’s Fair couldn’t do. Official World’s Fairs can last no longer than six months.
By the time the second season came to an end on September 15, 1937, nearly $70 million (the equivalent of $130 million in 2021 dollars) had been spent by approximately 7 million Exposition visitors over the two years. As the Expo was intended to further lakefront development, the Hall of Progress, the Varied Industries Building and the Horticultural Building were left in place, but that didn’t last for long. Eventually, all that remained were the Donald Gray Gardens just north of Municipal Stadium. The gardens were razed in 1999 to build the new Browns Stadium. In 2022, the vast area of what was the Exposition was home to the GREAT LAKES SCIENCE CENTER, First Energy Stadium, and the ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME.
Finding aid for the Great Lakes Exposition Scrapbook, WRHS.
Finding aid for the A. H. Zychick Great Lakes Exposition Album, WRHS.
View more on Cleveland Historical.
View image gallery at Cleveland Memory.
Vacha, John. Meet Me on Lake Erie Dearie!: Cleveland's Great Lakes Exposition. Kent State University Press, 2011