The grandest, giddiest fair the world has ever known was held to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase, President Thomas Jefferson’s historic land acquisition, and attracted 20 million people in just seven months. The 1904 World’s Fair was the birthplace of the club sandwich and iced tea, and secured American culinary institutions like the hot dog, ice-cream cone, peanut butter, and a “health drink” called Dr Pepper. It popularized hamburgers and Buster Brown shoes, showcased scientific wonders like X-ray machines, and thrilled crowds with a 2,160-seat Ferris wheel.
Most of the fair’s 900 structures and fantastic “palaces” were made of wood and inexpensive building materials that could easily be demolished. But the Palace of Fine Arts, an august blend of classical and Renaissance architecture designed by Cass Gilbert, was meant to become a permanent home for art. Today it houses the St. Louis Art Museum, the crown jewel of the sprawling 1,370-acre Forest Park that dwarfs New York City’s Central Park by 500 acres. Sitting atop Arl Hill, the museum houses a comprehensive collection of 30,000 works, a testament to the fortunes that made St. Louis the country’s fourth-largest city at the time of the fair.
While its galleries and marble corridors house first-rate collections of Asian and Western painting and sculpture, the St. Louis Art Museum is best known for its pre-Columbian and Oceanic art and its superlative 20th-century German collection, including the world’s largest collection of Expressionist Max Beckman paintings.
Forest Park itself dates back to 1876, when it was a tract of forest well outside the city limits (hence the name), but the flourishing city grew to eventually envelop it. Today it’s an inviting expanse, the city’s green soul, a few miles west of downtown, fresh from a recent face-lift to mark the anniversary of the 1904 event. Another fair-era highlight of the park is the Flight Cage, one of the world’s largest walk-through aviaries. It became the nucleus of the 77-acre St. Louis Zoo, and was recently transformed into a cypress swamp habitat with 16 species of birds that thrive along the Mississippi River. The park also includes lakes, a boathouse, two golf courses, a skating rink, and the Missouri History Museum. Visit the museum’s new permanent exhibit on the World’s Fair that embodies its sights, sounds, and splendor.