The largest festival Cincinnati has ever thrown opened July 4, 1888. The event commemorated 100 years since the city’s founding, though the name, Centennial Exposition of the Ohio Valley and Central States, folded in the entire Northwest Territory, strangely de-emphasizing the Queen City.
The exposition was “to be an attest of the development of art, science and industry in a century of the Northwestern Territory” and a showcase for the advancements in machinery during the Industrial Revolution. This was the grandest and last of the expositions that Cincinnati had hosted nearly every year since 1870.
It was the sort of event that Music Hall was built for.
Cincinnati’s tradition of holding industrial fairs went back to 1838 when the Ohio Mechanics Institute, an organization for training skilled tradesmen, presented its first fair. The early fairs were held in OMI’s headquarters in the infamous Trollope’s Bazaar building, the exotic, Moorish-styled marketplace and art gallery on Third Street that had been ahead of its time.
In 1870, OMI teamed with the Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Trade to host an industrial exposition to help jump-start the economy devastated by the Civil War.
The first Cincinnati Industrial Exposition was held in Saengerfest Halle, a large tin-roofed hall at 14th and Elm streets recently built for popular saengerfests, or German choral festivals. Additional halls were constructed for more exhibition space. After a few successful expos, the structure became known as Exhibition Hall.
When local philanthropist Reuben Springer offered to pay half the costs of a new music palace for the May Festival (because the rain hitting the tin roof drowned out the choir), the citizenry rose up to demand a building that could also accommodate the expositions.
So, architect Samuel Hannaford, who designed Music Hall as a temple to music, added exhibition halls on either side of the auditorium. Music Hall opened in 1878 in time for that year’s May Festival, while the Machinery Hall (north wing) and Art Hall (south wing) opened in 1879.
(As a side note, early illustrations of Music Hall, including those depicting the buildings of the 1888 exposition, show a statue of an angel and small children perched atop the Music Hall roof. According to Friends of Music Hall, there is no evidence of the statue ever being added to the structure. A photograph showing Music Hall during the exposition confirms that there was no angel statue.)
In 1888, city leaders were determined to spare no expense for the Centennial Exposition. Cincinnati’s reputation as the major city of the West was already waning as the rapid growth of Chicago and St. Louis surpassed it. This event would show the rest of the country that the Queen City still had her crown.
Music Hall and its exhibition halls served as the permanent buildings that anchored two large temporary structures.
The Washington Park Building, designed by architect Henry E. Siter, was a cruciform design with wings that extended through the park, each ending in towers topped with cone turrets and flags. Inside were the “capacious and luxurious restaurants and cafes” and offices for the committees. The central octagonal tower stood 150 feet high, visible from anywhere in the city when it was illuminated with electric lights, which were new enough to still dazzle and allowed the exhibits to stay open at night.
An ornate covered bridge spanned Elm Street, connecting the Washington Park Building to Music Hall. With the preponderance of towers and flags, the structures would have been at home in a medieval faire.
On the back side of Music Hall, the immense Machinery Hall, designed by James. W. McLaughlin, covered Plum Street for three blocks, from 12th to 15th streets, with the Miami & Erie Canal running right through the building. New industrial machinery was displayed in the aisles on either side of the waterway. The directors brought in authentic gondolas from Venice, Italy, with real gondoliers to pilot them along the canal, completing an evocative Venetian scene.
“With the variegated lights, the water and music, the scene will be one of beauty and interest never before witnessed in this country,” The Enquirer declared.
An elaborate downtown parade opened the Centennial Exposition on July 4. The local press and business leaders were effusive in their praise, though they did have financial incentive to draw more visitors to the city.
A Cincinnati Commercial Gazette reporter found famed artist Henry Farny lounging in a gondola and, as they went for a ride on the canal, asked him his thoughts on the expo.
“The Centennial Exposition is scarcely to be compared with any other thing of the kind, either in this country or in Europe,” Farny said. He singled out “the opportunity to study the ingenious mechanism of enginery” and the art galleries – “Such an exhibition of the paintings of modern masters has never before been seen in this country, and were it made abroad would of itself attract immense crowds.”
More than one million visitors came over the next four months. Admission cost 50 cents. The Centennial Exposition closed Oct. 27, but the next day the directors voted to extend the event until Nov. 8 at half price.
After the exposition closed, the gondolas, furniture, fixtures, and electric light machinery were sold at auction.
Historian Robert Vitz wasn’t as complimentary of Cincinnati’s exposition swan song. “Cincinnati was struggling with its obvious decline as the major city of the West, and saw in its industrial fairs, as well as in its cultural institutions, an opportunity to stake its claim as the ‘Paris of America,’ the major inland cultural center in the nation,” he wrote. “Since 1888 was the city’s centennial year, this particular fair reflected the city’s hopes for the future. Unfortunately for the city, it was too little and too late.”
Yet, Philip D. Spiess II suggested the industrial expos left the legacy of Music Hall, the Cincinnati Art Museum and the horticultural display at Krohn Conservatory. “Who can say, then, that in the long run Cincinnati’s Industrial Expositions failed?” he wrote.
Sources: “Official Guide of the Centennial Exposition of the Ohio Valley and Central States,” America’s Best History, “Exhibitions and Expositions in 19th Century Cincinnati” by Philip D. Spiess II (Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin), Friends of Music Hall, Enquirer and Commercial Gazette archives.