The Way It Was

Release Date: September 18, 1997

In the spring of 1901, a fantastic Pan American Rainbow City sprung up almost overnight to pierce the quiet treeline of Delaware Avenue and Lincoln Parkway with its frosted minarets, towers, balconies, domes and spires. For eight months, this fairyland realm, a 30-minute ride from downtown Buffalo, excited international applause and could be glimpsed from as far away as Niagara Falls.

Upon entering the exposition grounds, the visitor encountered a series of splendid domes, attractive minarets, towers and pavilions glowing with pleasant hues and tints; regal statues and buildings containing wonderful exhibits from all parts of the world set among one mile of Venetian-style canals dug for the exposition -- and later filled in -- wended their way among gardens, meadows, fountains and lakes.

The architecture of the Pan Am was a free treatment of the Spanish Renaissance style, an effort to pay homage to the Latin-American countries represented at the fair. Columns were used for decorative, rather than architectural, effect and the grounds constituted a symphony of balconies, loggias, towers and other fanciful architectural effects.

Perhaps the least-known fact about the exposition was the unusual coloring of the colossal buildings in red, blue, green and gold, which gave the site the sobriquet “The Rainbow City.” In previous expositions (Chicago Colombian, 1894; Paris, 1900), the main feature had been architecture, but not color.

The thing that really galvanized the American audience was the Pan Am’s extensive and exquisite electric lighting. Hydroelectric power recently had been developed and the vast transmission capability of Niagara Falls was harnessed to allow the first decorative application of electric lighting on a massive scale.

At dusk, 240,000 eight-watt bulbs came on simultaneously. It produced not a brilliant flash of light, but a gradual increase in brightness until every building was bathed in light. Electric bulbs marked the outlines and distinct features of the exposition’s buildings and other aspects of the grounds. Contemporary descriptions speak of “an amazing fairyland of lights.” The Electric Tower alone, painted in deep green with details of cream, blue and gold, was studded with 44,000 lights. The structure rose to a height of nearly 400 feet and was topped by a powerful searchlight that could be seen from Niagara Falls and Canada.

Among the many buildings and exhibits, the cream of the crop included the largest stadium ever built: the massive Panathenaic Stadium, modeled after Lysurgus’ 2,200-year-old Athenian original. It served as a venue for a broad range of displays, games, sporting events and entertainment that included Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Other outstanding structures represented states, the federal government and foreign nations; music, the plastic and visual arts; horticulture and agriculture; electricity; manufacturing and the liberal arts, and machinery and transportation.

While not a building or an exhibit, the Triumphal Bridge, centerpiece of the Pan American, was one of the most majestic and decorative features of the exposition. It spanned the Grand Canal between the exposition’s Mirror Lakes and led visitors from the forecourt of the exposition grounds to its esplanade. The bridge featured four giant piers upon which were mounted standard bearers holding aloft the national emblem. Around the bases were trophies of peace and war, and numerous other pieces of statuary, each expressing some phase of national greatness.

As was the case with many major expositions, none of the elaborate buildings of the Pan American were built as permanent structures. In order to construct world's fairs at a quick pace, 95 per cent of the buildings were wood-frame construction covered with chicken wire and a base coat of plaster.

Every rainfall would cause the buildings to decay a little more and since 1901 was one of the wettest summers in Buffalo’s history, the Rainbow City dissolved at a considerable pace. A close look at the many photographs of the Pan Am reveals buildings falling apart at the seams. The notable exception was the New York State building, which was constructed as a permanent site and now houses the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, an organization that will be deeply involved in the upcoming commemorative events.

It wasn’t all glitter and glitz and crumbling minarets, however. The Pan American Exposition was an opportunity for visitors to explore the issues of the day and celebrate some of the successes of the era through Chautauqua-type lectures and entertainment; meetings of external scholarly, professional, cultural and policy groups, as well as regional institutions and organizations, and visits by foreign dignitaries and national leaders.

Among the thousands of national figures who visited the Pan Am was U.S. President William McKinley, who was promoting commercial reciprocity as a stimulant to foreign trade. On Sept. 6, 1901, he was shot on the exposition grounds by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. McKinley died of his wound in Buffalo on Sept. 14 at the home of John Milburn on Delaware Avenue. Vice president Theodore Roosevelt was rushed to the city from his vacation in the Adirondack Mountains in time to be inaugurated in the Wilcox house -- now the Roosevelt Historical Site -- on Delaware Avenue as the 26th president of the United States.
Images from the collection of Kerry Grant

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