at Fairview Library offers glimpse into past
By Charles Cassady
Published April 2, 2008
city of Cleveland, on the ropes financially, tries to radically
remodel the downtown lakefront to attract business, giving downtown
a glorious new look. Well, that’s the up-to-the-minute ongoing soap
opera about the “Medical Mart,” or the new Convention Center, right?
No, it’s the 72-year old story of the Great Lakes Exposition of
the Depression era, a subject of a special historical presentation
at the Fairview
Park Public Library Monday at 7 p.m.
Sue Sifritt, a historical specialist at the library,
will use PowerPoint technology to literally walk 21st-century visitors
through scans of old postcards and sites of the grand pavilions
and spires that once soared near where the Rock Hall of Fame and
Museum and the Great Lakes Science Center now stand.
“Both of my parents went, and I heard them talking
about it various time’s when I was growing up,” said Sifritt.
The Great Lakes Exposition started in 1936. On 125
acres of land, roughly from where Browns Stadium to Burke Lakefront
Lakefront are now situated, were transformed by 200 new buildings.
Ostensibly it was related to Cleveland’s centennial, but the intention
was to spotlight the Great Lakes region as a site of commerce, culture,
art, entertainment and technology during the Depression years when
Eliot Ness served as Cleveland’s Safety Director and shanty villages
filled the Flats.
The sparkling new construction that went up with the
Exposition included a “Court of Presidents,” highlighting chief
executives from the midwest, a “Winterland,” a “Hall of Progress,”
“Varied Industries,” “Streets of the World,” “Horticultural Gardens,”
a “Tower of Light,” “The Romance of Iron and Steel,” a “Florida
Building” and a “Marine Theater,” which, in 1937, was redeveloped
as a floating night club, the Billy Rose Aquacade.
Amazingly, said Sifritt, most of the preparations
took just about three to nine months.
On the day the Great Lakes Exposition began, June 27, 1936,
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt officiated, electronically opening
the front gates, via long-distance push-button in Washington D.C.
(he visited in person a few months later). It was such a big deal
the United States Treasury even struck commemorative 50-cent coins
for the Exposition.
“I used to have one,” said Sifritt. “I don’t any more.”
Adult admission to the event, in fact, was 50 cents.
The extravaganza wasn’t as sprawling as the legendary Chicago World’s
Fair - another must-see of the 1930s - but it was impressive nonetheless
and drew several million visitors, who signed their names to a register
called the Golden Book of Cleveland that, at more than two tons,
bade to be the largest book in the world. Fantastic attractions
included a pavilion of trained monkeys, a Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not
“Odditorium,” an early demonstration of television, several restaurants,
a Shakespeare theater, a live-reptile act, the polar-exploration
ship used by Admiral Byrd, as well as a state-of-the-art US Navy
Visiting celebrities frequented the Aquacade for its
musical numbers and exhibitions of synchronized swimming on Lake
Erie, among them singer-actor Rudy Vallee and Olympics swimmer and
movie Tarzan Johnny Weismuller.
“[Weismuller] complained - and so did some of the
other swimmers - because the polluted water was causing rashes,”
said Sifritt. “Even back then it was polluted.”
Though it was only supposed to last a year, the success
of the Great Lakes Exposition made the organizers decide to extend
it into 1937 - though ticket sales for the protracted edition were
rather disappointing, said Sifritt, and the Exposition closed in
While signs of the old New York World’s Fair and the
Knoxville World’s Fair and Montreal’s Expo 70 can still be visited,
the Great Lakes Exposition is just as noteworthy for what it left
behind: nothing. Except for souvenir booklets and small relics,
traces of the giant towers and pavilions disappeared long ago -
dismantled summarily or recycled for the WWII war effort.
A set of gardens along the lakefront and a beautiful
fountain were supposed to remain behind as “a gift to the city,”
said Sifritt. But they were poorly maintained, and the fountain
fell into disrepair. A fire ultimately erased them from memory,
as well as the landscape. Nobody even knows where the two-and-a-half
ton Golden Book of Cleveland wound up.
But by using computer projections, the archives of
the Cleveland Memory Project (from the collection of Cleveland State
University and the Ohio Historical Society), old postcards and the
prose of Cleveland society-page columnist Windsor French, she plans
to bring the Great Lakes Exposition to “virtual” life for an armchair
Sue Sifritt said that local historian John Vacha is
working on a book recalling the Great Lakes Exposition, and that
memories of the great show may come even closer than that at her
Monday presentation. “I understand that some of the people who have
signed up [to attend] have been there.”
Admission to Sifritt’s presentation is even cheaper
than the Great Lakes Exposition itself – free – but you are asked
in advance by calling 440-333-4700. The Fairview Park Public Library
is located at 21255 Lorain Road.