by Christopher Hodapp
There's an article this week on the Scottish Rite Museum's blog about an Order of the Eastern Star display at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1896. I love anything that combines fraternalism with my childhood fascination with World's Fairs. At the age of five and a half, my father took me to the New York World's Fair in Flushing Meadow.
Flying cars, rocket packs, video phones, Moon rockets, robots - they were all there, and more. I glimpsed the future that weekend in New York, and I wanted in. The Fair succeeded at what world's fairs in those days were supposed to do - it inspired a whole generation of fairgoers about the exciting technology of the time, and the greater achievements we would make in the future that was closer than we thought.
It's a shame that world's fairs lost their ability to do that in the decade after New York's, because we seem to have given up on our ability to be optimistically inspired in the last 50 years.
Masons assembling at the Chicago Fair in 1893 held a 'fraternal congress' in the new Chicago Temple, a meeting of the world's Masonic grand lodges to discuss issues facing the fraternity. You can hear about it below.
The Columbian World Exposition at Jackson Park in Chicago, Illinois celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas in 1492. Organizers built more than 200 new, mostly temporary structures and pavilions that spanned over 600 acres on the South Side of Chicago. Nicknamed 'the White City' because of its gleaming white plaster, classical Greek-revival construction, the Chicago fair ushered in almost three decades of the City Beautiful Movement in America. Motivated by that architectural movement, Freemasons all over the U.S. embarked on massive building campaigns with magnificent new temples that remain standing to this day, unmatched by any buildings we would ever construct before or since.
Chicago's Freemasons had built the tallest building in the world
A decade later, the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 was held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, and that city pulled out all the stops just as Chicago had. (If you know of the old musical Meet Me In St. Louis, it is a story about a family and events around that particular fair.) The St. Louis Fair came at the height of the Golden Age of Fraternalism in the United States, and unlike the Masonic events at Chicago, some sought wider participation from all fraternal groups to demonstrate a global mission of universal brotherhood. Little could any of them know that the first truly global conflict, World War I, was only ten years away.
From a communication sent to all Masonic grand lodges by the Temple Association in 1902:
“The Temple of Fraternity to be erected is an adaptation of the Parthenon of Athens, the standard of Greek architecture. It will be 200x300 feet surrounding a court which will be decorated as a tropical garden. It will be two stories high, with porticoes sixteen feet in depth on the exterior and interior, ornamented with Doric columns. Rooms will be set aside in this beautiful structure for all co-operating societies, where they will make their headquarters during the World’s Fair, and maintain a place for rendezvous and refreshment for the members from all parts of the country. The immense porticoes will be free for the use of all. Rooms will also be set aside for reading, writing, smoking, toilet purposes, ladies’ parlors, lounging, etc. Telephone, telegraph and postal service will be supplied, and a check room for parcels, as well as a free dispensary, attended by a board of competent physicians. The site selected for the Temple of Fraternity is one of the most commanding on World’s Fair grounds.”The Temple of Fraternity was a huge success. The fraternal organizations measurably brought more visitors to the city and Fair than any other group or association. It was even featured on souvenir boxes of cigars sold at the Temple.
When the Fair ended, most pavilions were destroyed. The Temple of Fraternity, however, lived on. It was dismantled and shipped to New Mexico, where it became the administration building for a sanitarium for the treatment of tuberculosis, supported by an association of fraternal organizations.
When plans were underway in 1960 for the 1964-65 World's Fair in New York, the Freemasons of that state had great ambitions, too. U.S. Freemasonry had just peaked in membership in 1958 with 4.1 million members. Little would they know that the fraternity had already begun its long, downward trend in a world that lost its desire to join voluntary social organizations. With great confidence and unbridled optimism, the Grand Lodge of New York erected a pavilion to tell the story of Freemasonry to the millions who came to the Fair.
Just 60 years after St. Louis, the Masons were the only fraternal group represented at the New York Fair.The monumental structures over the decades that have remained around the world after the fairs themselves have been scraped from the Earth always attract my attention, along with the bright and joyfully optimistic futures each of these fairs always projected - Paris' Eiffel Tower, New York's Unisphere, Seattle's Space Needle, Chicago's Grant Park and Museum of Science & Industry, and many more. But world's fairs themselves were always meant to be temporary, fleeting, making way for ever newer innovations and greater human achievements yet to be celebrated.
From the incredible New York World's fair website:
"The Masonic Center showcased Masonic history and memorabilia going back to medieval times. The Center, which stood across a reflecting pool from a 50-foot high model of the builder's square and compass, symbols of the fraternity, was sponsored by the Grand Lodge of New York. It included a hall for exhibitions, a lounge, office and outside patio. Dominating the hall was an 11-foot high statue, in Masonic regalia, of George Washington, first of 14 American Presidents (till 1964) who belonged to the brotherhood. Events from his life were portrayed in three-diminsional scenes, and the Bible on which he took the oath of office as President was on display. Documents on view dated back to the 14th Century, when the Masons were the cathedral builders of Europe. Among them was a Plan of Union for the colonies written by Mason Benjamin Franklin in 1754."
The three-dimensional scenes discussed above were two diaramas, one depicting General Washington and General Lafayette (both Masons) at Valley Forge; the other showed Washington taking his oath of office in Federal Hall, New York City, as first President of the United States. Also shown was his apron as Master of Alexandria Lodge (Alexandria, Va.), a tuft of Washington's hair, and the Square and Compass which he personally used in laying out the lands of Fairfax County,Va. There were also displays about Governor DeWitt Clinton, Governor and Grand Master of New York; Lewis and Clark;Admiral Byrd; General "Blackjack: Pershing; Will Rogers; and other distinguished Masons in history. A map of the world showing the location of all 112 recognized Grand Lodges was displayed.
The theme of the entire pavilion was "Brotherhood, the Foundation of World Peace."(You can view the entire souvenir guide book for the Masonic Brotherhood Center HERE)
Two items remain today of New York's 1964 Masonic pavilion - the top portion of the tall fiberglass square and compass that stood on the corner of the Fair's Avenue Europe and Avenue of the Americas beckoning visitors now stands in front of the Masonic Home in Utica, New York.
And the bronze statue of George Washington in Masonic regalia created by the sculptor Donald DeLue stands today on the approximate site of the pavilion in Corona Park, appropriately surrounded by cherry trees. It alone remains in the park today to tell the world that the Masons once were there.
World's fairs were developed and flourished at the dawn of the Industrial Age until they limped to a shadow of themselves by the 1970s. Something changed and we stopped celebrating the dazzling, life-changing achievements of Mankind.