Notes on the Pan-American Exposition
Cosmopolitan Magazine September 1901
By Robert Grant

Comparisons are odious, and at the same time often inevitable. Here we have a case in point. The free-born American who was so fortunate as to visit Chicago in the year of its White City inevitably asks himself first of all, as he contemplates the glories of the Pan-American, "How does this compare with our great Exposition?"

Moreover, the comparison is forced upon him by what he sees. He sees the same general scheme of department buildings; a brilliant, imposing city towering in staff as by the touch of a necromancer's wand; a kindred profusion of boldly imagined and freely executed groups of statuary; an analogous system of waterways; the same old Midway with a few novel features; in short, a practical reproduction of what appeared at Chicago -- different and yet still the same. The White City with its Court of Honor was an astounding novelty. Many of us went there hopeful yet calm, and scarcely expecting to be thrilled.

What we beheld amazed us, made us prouder than ever of our country, and opened our eves to the great power and versatility of the nation. If our heads swam and we reveled in superlatives, there was a legitimate excuse for it. But the Yankee brain is not apt to swim twice from the same intoxicant. Nor will the freeborn American, entitled to his own opinion, be restrained from saying, "I have seen something like this before, " by the pious thought that the citizens of Buffalo have raised by popular subscription and expended for the gratification of the people of the United States one million seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars, a sum supplemented by the donation of half a million from Congress.

Indeed, as one surveys with pleased eyes the architecture which the guide-book tersely terms "a free treatment of the Spanish Renaissance, a compliment to the Latin-American countries who are prominent exhibitors," the sardonic thought may intrude that Buffalo can scarcely have intended to make so rare a gift to the American public without hope of return, both in glory and in current cash left behind by the sojourner at its Fair. Whatever the illusion may have been at Chicago, certainly one does not forget here that an exhibition of this sort is not solely a glorification of art and the humanities for their own sake, but is a business proposition as well, and a grand advertising scheme for the display of the inventions, manufactures and industrial enterprises of the Republic. This is an inevitable and legitimate purpose of all expositions, but the visitor will forget the fact if the enchantment be complete. At Buffalo the spell cast does not suffice to allure the sagacious into buying a box of stain-removing soap made from the bark of South American trees, or to patronize the ubiquitous purveyors of optic lenses, who for some reason are much in evidence in the buildings. That is, in the daytime. At night one might be tempted to buy anything.

For instance, two friends of mine, cultured and rationally critical men from Boston, had a narrow escape from missing the distinctive and monumental feature, of the Exposition. The beginning of the second week of June, when I happened to be there, was far from balmy. The wind was sharp and overcoats were indispensable. The atmosphere rendered all but the very youthful indifferent to the charm of gondolas and open-air concerts. Returning at night to my hostelry at Niagara, I came upon my two Bostonians, warming their toes over a sea-coal fire. It appeared they were on their way West and had stopped over to see the Pan-American. They had seen it and were disappointed. It was well enough in its way, they said, but an echo of Chicago without its fascination, and they had been nearly frozen into the bargain. Two hours had been sufficient for them, after a night in the sleeping-car, and they had sought solace in the grandeur of Niagara's falls and gorge, which had restored their faith in the eternal fitness of things. Parenthetically it may be suggested that there was a certain audacity on the part of the projectors of the Fair in setting up their plaster city in such proximity to one of the real beauties of the world. Yet there was method too in their madness, for it is but a step for brides from Goat Island to the Court of Fountains and the Sunken Gardens of the Pan-American.

" But," said I to my friends, "have you not seen the illumination?" They shook their heads. Thereupon I took upon myself to assure them that if they departed without seeing it they would be guilty of a cruel wrong to themselves, and that the spectacle was worth a voyage across the Atlantic. They regarded me skeptically, but they consented to go with me on the following evening. It was Sunday, and the atmosphere had softened and mellowed. There was no wind and the sky was without a cloud -- a genuine June twilight. I piloted them along the Court of Fountains until we were at the southerly end of the basin. There we stood and waited with a throng of other watchers, looking back at the Electric Tower. The description of what followed will be trite enough to those who have seen it for themselves; yet who that seeks to specify the crowning and original feature of this Exposition will be able to pass over this unique sight?

The time fixed for the ceremony of illumination is half-past eight, just as the summer twilight is deepening into darkness. A few moments before the appointed hour, one perceives the bulbs of electric light along the paths and in the buildings diminish in intensity until they become mere tiny specks of flame which fade away. There is a deep silence, and all eyes are riveted on the Electric Tower. Suddenly, in the splendid vertical panel with four brooches which decorates its center, there is a faint glow of light like the first flush of sunrise from behind a mountain-peak. It mounts and spreads, at first gradually, with dignified celerity, then with a swifter effulgent pervasiveness until the entire territory of the Fair has been metamorphosed into a gorgeous vision of dazzling towers, minarets and scintillating gardens. The Spanish Renaissance scheme of color is gone, and in its stead we have a veritable fairy-land; the triumph not of Aladdin's lamp, but of the masters of modern science over the nature-god, Electricity.

My two friends from Boston acknowledged utterly the spell of the occasion. There was no gainsaying the beauty and genius of the display. Behind the gleaming expanse of myriad jets of marshaled flame hung the clear, cloudless sky, a transporting background of lucent ultramarine, suggesting one of Dante's gleaming heavens. And as we gazed and sauntered musing, we overheard this pretty dialogue. An elderly couple passed us, and the husband murmured, "If we were to live a other twenty-five years, what shouldn't we see?" Her gentle reply was, "You will see something very like this -- the gold city!" Apt phraseology and an exhaustive popular tribute. Certainly the Pan-American is well worth visiting, if only for this sensation.

On the 7th of June, and subsequent day when I visited the Fair, the exhibition was substantially ready for inspection, but wore in many spots the air of a hasty and incomplete toilet. The State Buildings were almost universally in the early stage of erection; the Fine Arts exhibit was not yet open; few of the restaurants were in active operation; a number of the attractions of the Midway were still incomplete and even in the main buildings -- the Liberal Arts, Electricity, Machinery and Agriculture -- though the principal exhibits were in order, there were evidences on every side of tardiness in equipment, and many booths were in a state of confusion. Perhaps discrepancies in punctuality are unavoidable, and it is too much to demand of human imperfection that an exhibition advertised to be complete on a certain date should be finished thirty days later.

However this may be, the visitor at this period found an agreeable exception in the admirable display at the Government Building. Here everything was in apple-pie order. Intelligence, system and a keen appreciation of the opportunities of the occasion had evidently combined to produce an altogether interesting collection of Americana. No person, young or old, could fail to be instructed and entertained by the diversified exhibit which the government officials have set forth with due allowance for space and an eye for proper effect. There is no crowding, no superabundance of material. The clean and well-devised presentation of fish in the aquarium is a pleasure to the eye, from the sturgeon hobnobbing with the seal in the large tank to the group of frail but aristocratic-looking albino trout. Among so much that was worth attention, I recall the carefully planned groups of American tribes in native costumes, with their implements; the comprehensive display of army and navy costumes from 1775 to the present day: the exhibit of ordnance and modern naval apparatus; the choice selection of interesting relics from the Smithsonian Institute; and the reduced facsimiles, offered by the Patent Office, of the McCormick reaper, showing its evolution from the primitive machine of fifty years ago to the complicated engine of twentieth-century agriculture. Every department of the government was adequately represented, and in a manner to educate and inspire the great public.

Probably, to eight persons out of every ten the effect of visiting a series of large buildings bristling with machinery and the products of the industrial arts is confusing, not to say paralyzing to the brain. Few if any of us can hope by a gentlemanly tour of three days through a great exhibition to carry away accurate knowledge concerning the scientific and mechanical apparatus which we behold. The eye becomes tired and the imagination sated by the plethora of cogs and blades, wheels and dynamos. There are spells when we are indisputably bored. But what a treasure house this accumulation within a small compass of the results of American inventive and engineering skill must be to the student in search of practical demonstration and to the specialist who knows what lie desires to see or examine! I am so constituted, unfortunately, that the details of machinery produce no more impression on my optic nerves than water produces on a duck's back; but I am in my ignorance, nevertheless, a genuine worshiper of the genius that can generate the marvelous mechanical devices which revolutionize the industrial processes of the world. Such a fine exhibit as the array of huge, grasshopper-like implements in the Machinery Building, those of the General Electric and Westinghouse Companies in the Electricity Building, and that of the Calumet & Hecla Company in the Mines Building, stirs our pulses with pride, even if we gape at it with unenlightened eyes.

In the matter of the every-day industrial arts I suppose that we are all self-constituted judges of what is edifying and beautiful. In the course of my earthly pilgrimage I have been to many food fairs and to many mammoth bazaars where domestic manufactures, fancy dry goods and glittering small ware were set forth as here in continuous, bewildering booths. No one will deny that the exhibit in the Industrial Arts Building is representative, comprehensive and highly creditable to the brains, energy and ingenuity of the nation. Who can be offended by such a patriotic declaration as this? Yet there is not much that is new or absorbing in this collection to any one echo has kept pace with metropolitan shopping and read the advertising supplements of the magazines. This, of course, is merely a comparative criticism. There will be thousands of people not conversant with cities, and whose opportunities to travel are limited, to whom these variegated booths must be both a delight and a means of education. But I should not advise the traveled and sophisticated bridegroom to cut short his honeymoon at sublime Niagara in order to make time for a conscientious examination of the many foods, fabrics, Yankee notions and minor trinkets spread for inspection in this large building. Let me add that I do not wish to appear unappreciative of the respectability of the exhibit, but merely to suggest that it did not for me possess the charm of novelty or special distinction. Nor will the bride, it seemed to me, find the so-called souvenirs of Buffalo's glory -- "something to remember the Fair by" -- original or cajoling. I am free to confess that I am not susceptible to souvenirs of this class. Indeed, the passion for souvenir spoons in which some amiable people indulge as an esthetic diversion appears to me closely allied to the mental condition which protests against the nude in art. But there have been expositions where the popular fancy was arrested by keepsakes which were diverting and clever, if not artistic. At the Pan-American everything of the sort which I saw was hideous, and the souvenir card which I posted to an infant son was a cruel daub of the Electric Tower, suggesting a gaudy lighthouse struck by streaks of lightning.

The architectural color-scheme of the Fair is one of those ticklish subjects concerning which there are sure to be diverse and conflicting opinions. It is certainly striking and positive. Colloquially speaking, the color is all there, and there is plenty of it. One seems to be walking through a park of South American palaces. Possibly it is the mental effect of being in South America which restrains the soul from complete enthusiasm, for we are not accustomed to think of South America in superlatives. The architects and artists had constantly upon them as a nightmare the perfection of Chicago, and the problem of how to make another White City which should be the same and yet, distinctive be entrancing without being white. The South American City with its splurge of Spanish Renaissance is dignified without being tawdry; is picturesque and interesting. But -- for, like my fellow-citizens from Boston, I find a "but'' -- there is no temptation to the spectator to gasp and clap the hands. Naturally the buildings are of different degrees of merit, but the color-scheme is so predominant that in spite of variations of shape they produce at first the effect of looking all alike, just as the Chinese do until we are accustomed to them. Among the orgie of color there is nothing more individual than the commanding Electric Tower itself, with its garish but highly effective treatment in white, blue, and gold and its cascade bursting from a concave panel of cerulean blue and tumbling into the basin below.

Whatever one's opinion as to the comparative value of the architecture, all will agree that the dedications, or apostrophes, on the several main buildings were composed with a fine discretion. Their sentiments are appropriate and stimulating, their diction is euphonious yet simple.

As in the case of the architecture, it seemed to me that the statuary, though the work was often spirited and assertive, was less fine as a rule and as a whole than what appeared at Chicago. It struck me that the free-hand treatment in the minor pieces betrayed at times a lack of finish which came perilously near being slovenly. But every visitor will admire without reservation the splendid equestrian figures which mark the entrance to the main court on the southerly side, abutting the termination of the bridge which leads from the Park. Are they not masterly, stately and ornamental?

It should be added that criticism of the esthetic attractions of the Pan-American is invidious for the reason that Chicago has given us so stern a standard of comparison that there is danger of seeming unappreciative of the work of the imaginative and public-spirited men whose contributions as a whole afford an inspiring spectacle to a grateful public. But I doubt, nevertheless, if the South American City can be deemed an overwhelming success from an artistic standpoint.

The visitor to the Fair in the early days of June could not but be impressed by the preparations which had been and were being made for the entertainment of a great democratic people. It was obvious that the management had planned to provide liberally the miscellaneous and popular attractions which have become prominent features of every large exposition. A big modern fair is now the Mecca not only of those hungry for knowledge or thirsty for inspiration, of the patriotic and of people who travel once or twice in a lifetime, but it has become the stamping-ground of hordes of organizations whose badges flutter in the breeze and whose annual meetings are held in the hotel corridors appurtenant to the Exposition grounds. A few of these marching bodies were in evidence when I was there, but most of them were still to come. A glance at the guide-book reveals that over one hundred annual conventions are scheduled to be held in Buffalo before the 1st of November, and this list, drawn from at random, includes bodies as dissimilar in character as the Western Dancing-Teachers' Association, the Layers' Union of North America, the International Cremation Congress, the Hoo-Hoo National Concatenation and the New York Sabbath Association. It seems to be assured that those will be "strenuous" times at Buffalo as a consequence. And, barring the consideration of heat, what a stirring and agreeable method of spending a holiday week this trip will be to the tired workers of the country -- to whom we all belong?

Diversion for the visiting multitudes is provided according to their tastes by the Stadium, by band concerts, by organ recitals in the Temple of Music and by the irrepressible and somewhat irresponsible Midway. At the Stadium -- or combination ball-field and sporting-track, in elaboration of that at Athens (and of course larger) -- the "continuous carnival" of events arranged for had already begun. Base-ball games, bicycle races, lacrosse matches, canoe meets, basket-ball championships, track athletic contests and firemen's tournaments will succeed one another with businesslike variety. There are diverse open-air band-stands at which one may hear good, indifferent or distressing music according to the quality of the band which one happens to draw in the daily band lottery, for the visiting bands, like the visiting organizations, have their special days. I was not invariably fortunate. I remember listening to one in the forenoon in the Temple of Music, the noise of which was a happy accompaniment to the decoration of that bilious-looking edifice. But the great organ in the Temple of Music is a superb instrument, though, as I was told, it was temporarily not quite in tune. On several occasions I sought a respite here from the fatigue of sight-seeing and joined the appreciative music-lovers and the fugitives from the keen Buffalo wind, who together made a considerable audience for the solitary performer. The acoustics of the building seemed to me excellent, and in the topmost row of the gallery the tones of the organ came to me full and clear. The center of diversion, of course, is the Midway, which even in its name is directly reminiscent of Chicago, and which is the same old grotesque but alluring combination of circus, ethnological bazaar and variety-show. At an ordinary circus, even the mature are apt to eat popcorn and drink pink lemonade as a rebuff to their own solemnity, and to a greater degree in this modern annex to a serious exhibition we are all of us led by easy-going curiosity, or a lighthearted spirit of fun, to poke our twenty-five cent or ten cent bits through the aperture in the cashier's cage in response to the fetching eloquence of successive showmen. I did my Midway with some thoroughness, and was more or less entertained -- sometimes by the superbly grave fluency with which the employees recited their lessons rather than by the humor of the show itself. For instance, the running account of Antony and Cleopatra, given by the exhibitor throws the portrait of the fair Egyptian completely into the shade and saves one from regretting the loss of the dime. There was nothing more entertaining among the attempts to reproduce foreign peoples than our old acquaintance, the "Street in Cairo," with its glittering bazaar manned by olive attendants, who, in their whining, wheedling efforts to sell you many things for which you have no use, drop the price one hundred per cent as they grasp your arm and whisper: ''See here, beeziness is bad, I'll let you have it for three dollars." What, by the way, can be the special charm to the American young woman in being jolted by a camel? On the afternoon when I was there, no fewer than half a dozen girls of eighteen years and upward, generally two on a camel, were bumping through Cairo most ungracefully on these ancient beasts, to the amusement of everybody else.

The Indian Congress contains one of the largest and most genuine-looking bodies of warriors which I ever saw brought together for spectacular purposes. Many of the braves and squaws were large-featured, vigorous specimens of the race. They were most lavishly and picturesque decked out with feathers and war-paint, so much so that their ochers and reds were a formidable rival to the Spanish Renaissance scheme of color. There was one chieftain who indulged in blue cheeks. On the day of my visit a huge placard in front of the novelty entitled "A Trip to the Moon" announced that Chauncey M. Depew had made the ascent a few hours previous. As a part of the experience you find yourself presently on the deck of a ship journeying toward the lunar sphere. So considerable is the illusion produced that an elderly lady next to me expressed alarm and could not be convinced by her friends or the attendants that the air-ship on which we appeared to be mounting through space was stationary. From this gay performance to the pathos of the infant incubator is a violent change in mental atmosphere and an illustration of the heterogeneous character of the Midway. There tiny babies prematurely born lie on miniature beds in neat little ovens from which they are taken at regular intervals to be fed, weighed and re-swathed. One of the most liberally patronized features of the Midway was "Alt Nurnberg," a picturesque reproduction of a street in Nurnberg, at the end of which one finds a restaurant, partly in the open air and partly under cover, where one can take luncheon or dine acceptably and listen to a spirited German band.

The exhibits of the Latin-American countries, like the countries themselves, are independent of one another, and so do not present a solid front to the casual eye. Some of them have merely space in one or another of the main buildings and consequently the visitor (like most of us) without conscientious scruples as to sight-seeing is liable to overlook the interesting and curious collections of their native products and manufactures. But Chili has a distinctive building for the display of its interesting and complete exhibit, and so have Ecuador and some of the Central American countries and Mexico. The Canadian exhibit in a large building of its own is very representative and well arranged, and I noticed that the Canadian display of fruit in the Horticulture Building was equally creditable.

Among the great fairs of the world the Pan-American will hold an honorable place. It provides the people of the nation with comprehensive and systematic information in regard to the products and industrial accomplishments of the hemisphere, and at the same time; diverts them in true democratic fashion. Its setting is picturesque and interesting, but is not an artistic triumph. Its unique and compelling feature is its electric-light illumination, which is superb and a masterly achievement. Buffalo is to be congratulated. To put the case concisely, St. Louis should gird her loins, but she need not despair.

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