By Thomas F. Schwartz
After leaving the presidency in March 1933, Herbert and Lou Hoover returned to their home in Palo Alto, California. By nature, they were not homebodies and were always traveling. Visiting friends in Chicago allowed them to attend the Chicago World’s Fair that used as its theme “A Century of Progress.” Unlike the 1893 Columbian Exposition that created the “White City” of Beaux-Arts buildings, this fair adopted modernist Art Deco designs that avoided ornamentation and emphasized clean, sharp building outlines. Lean economic times also forced the creative use of less expensive materials as well as the use of gaseous tube lighting such as neon, krypton, helium, and mercury vapor. By all accounts, the fair was a success in the midst of growing economic despair. Nine million visitors spent an estimated four hundred million dollars. American industrial sponsors invested thirty-two million as exhibitors, found their investment well worth the return.
Sally Rand and her famous feather and bubble dances scandalized “proper” fairgoers but became one of the must-see attractions of the fair. Long before Jurassic Park, Sinclair Oil Company created a seventy-five foot brontosaurus that moved its head and tail as part of the story on the origins of oil. General Electric’s House of Magic allowed the public to witness lights without power cords and popcorn created by “microwaves.” The Sky Ride lifted visitors six hundred and twenty-five feet in the air to view the entire midway and get a clear view of the two-hundred foot high Havoline building styled as an operating thermometer.
Writing to her youngest son, Allan, Lou Hoover expressed her unvarnished opinions of the fair: “My dear, if I had a week to go about this Fair with you at odd times, we would be amused. As it is, we have been out there three or four times for an hour or two each time—more seen than seeing; and a bit bored. The architecture is all that it is described—but there seems ample reason for it—parts of it are amusing, parts amazing—most of it dreary, and all singularly reminiscent of Cal[ifornia] Highway architecture as practiced by filling stations and hot dog stands. At night parts of it are lighted very picturesquely.”
Lou’s comments mirror the Art Deco style used by roadside buildings in the 1930s. As automobiles and concrete roads such as the Lincoln Highway and Route 66 gave great access to nationwide travel, amenities such as gas stations, cafes, and motels sprouted like topsy to accommodate travelers. So much of the architecture of the fair was déjà vu for the former First Lady and Californian.