Inspired by world’s fairs in Atlanta, New Orleans, and Nashville, a young and progressive set of local businessmen launched plans for the Charleston Exposition in 1899. They hoped such an endeavor would modernize the city’s image and stimulate commercial and industrial economies. The primary goal of the Exposition was to promote the port of Charleston and to reposition the city as the major trade route between the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America after decades of economic decline following the Civil War.
Organizers hired New York architect Bradford Lee Gilbert, designer of Atlanta’s Cotton States and International Exposition (1895), to design the site and to supervise construction. Built on the eastern banks of the Ashley River, as many as twenty temporary buildings were erected on more than 250 acres of land that once comprised the Washington Race Course and The Grove plantation. The Exposition’s most dynamic structures, deemed the “Court of Palaces,” were located along the main thoroughfare and together characterized the architectural splendor of the event. Consisting of several key buildings, including the Palaces of Agriculture, Commerce, and Cotton, the Court was connected by elaborate colonnades and surrounded by an impressive sunken garden. At night an intricate lighting system illuminated the Palaces’ architectural details and created radiant reflections in the garden water features.
Dubbed the Ivory City for its striking white palaces and luminous night views, the Exposition welcomed thousands of visitors each day between December 1, 1901, and June 20, 1902. An art exhibition hall, bandstand, and a four thousand-seat auditorium offered a variety of cultural experiences. Numerous cities and states were represented in individual exhibition buildings, offering visitors a taste of the country by regions. An Exposition highlight was the arrival of the Liberty Bell—generously loaned by the Philadelphia Convention. The Midway, located adjacent to the Court of Palaces, featured a vibrant array of concessions, amusements, and other spectacles that had been popularized at previous Victorian-era expositions. The Venice in America Restaurant, Bostock’s Great Animal Arena, The Esquimaux, Akoun’s Beautiful Orient and Streets of Cairo venue, and performances by Jim Key, the Educated Horse were just a sampling of Midway attractions. In April 1902 the fair was marked by special visits from President Theodore Roosevelt and author Samuel Clemens.
Photographers from all over the country documented Charleston’s world’s fair. Local photographer George W. Johnson captured the Exposition with his handcrafted camera, creating hundreds of images of the event. His original glass plate negatives are held in the archives of the Gibbes Museum of Art, where many have been conserved and digitized.
Despite the grandeur of the exhibition halls and a steady stream of visitors, the Exposition suffered persistent funding shortages. No foreign governments sent official exhibitions, undermining the mission to promote international trade. When the Exposition closed to the public in June 1902 a count of 675,000 visitors had passed through its gates, a third of the traffic organizers had projected. Today, the grounds are the site of Hampton Park and the Citadel. The exposition bandstand still stands at the center of the park, a reminder of an exciting past.