For more than 150 years, world’s fairs have tapped into the cultural psyche of nations, showcasing advancements in design and technology, art and architecture, and more. Relics of past expositions, such as the Seattle Space Needle (1962), the Hall of Science in Queens, New York (1964), and Habitat 67 in Montreal (1967) have become permanent city fixtures. Some fairs of yore, however, have no remaining landmarks by which to remember them—like the United States’ first-ever world’s fair, and the subject of a recently-opened exhibit at Manhattan’s Bard Graduate Center Gallery, New York Crystal Palace 1853.
Formally known as the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, the Crystal Palace was a vast, two-level structure composed of 1,500 panes of glass and a cast-iron skeleton, sited on present-day Bryant Park. Designed by European architects Georg Cartensen and Charles Gildemeister, the building was modeled after Joseph Paxton’s London Crystal Palace of 1851, but featured a monumental dome—the largest in the U.S.—and more advanced building materials, such as translucent glass plates that reduced heat and glare. Although it was hailed as fireproof, the iconic exhibition hall, once described by Mark Twain as “a perfect fairy palace, beautiful beyond description,” was decimated in an 1858 blaze.
While it is not a comprehensive survey, New York Crystal Palace 1853 offers a glimpse of what 19th-century tourists could have encountered. It introduces gallery-goers to the forgotten glazed edifice with a series of prints, including birds-eye views that place it within an unrecognizably rural Manhattan landscape. A selection of designed objects and manufactured consumer goods highlight some of the industrial marvels shown at the Palace: daguerreotype equipment, a Singer sewing machine, a Colt percussion revolver, and items ranging from decorative porcelain to a rare violin. Printed promotional materials, artworks, and other utilitarian items produced for the fair are also on display.
The exhibition New York Crystal Palace 1853 is on view at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery through July 30, 2017.