Great Lakes Exposition

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A 1936 program from the Great Lakes Exposition at the Cleveland Public Library.


They built the Great Lakes Exposition in 80 days — 135 acres of exhibition halls, theaters and mouth-gaping spectacles on the shores of Lake Erie, to bolster Cleveland in the midst of the Great Depression.

Community activist Frank J. Ryan and Public Hall Commissioner Lincoln Dickey dreamed up the idea, and showman Dudley S. Blossom raised more than $1 million in a few months to make it happen. The federal government chipped in with its Works Progress Administration workforce.

And over the summers of 1936 and 1937, about 7 million came to take in performances in the Radioland bandshell, the Globe theater and the Aquacade; to walk the Streets of the World (and see some nude entertainment); to marvel at inventions like long-distance telephone calls and walk the horticultural gardens.

The grounds stretched from Municipal Stadium to about East 22nd Street, built on a garbage dump and a bunch of shantytowns.

A dramatic promenade of lit-up pylons served as the main entrance at St. Clair Avenue, and a bridge lined with busts of presidents led from the mall to the lakefront.

But once the expo was over, all the impressive rchitecture was razed — except for the Donald Gray Gardens and their Oz-like Ernst Fountain, which last until construction in 1997 for for now-First Energy Stadium.

It wasn’t quite a World’s Fair. But it was designed to elevate Cleveland in the eyes of the world, on the 100th anniversary of the city’s incorporation. 

“It was probably one of the biggest stories on the lakefront of the 20th century,” said Pamela Eyerdam, fine arts and special collections manager at the downtown Cleveland Public Library.

The library has a collection of Expo programs, souvenirs and gorgeous art deco posters many of them printed in Cleveland, then one of the biggest lithograph publishers in the world.

See’s fantastic interactive map of the grounds

Or see 50 photos of the splendor

You can see pictures of Billy Rose’s Aquacade, a 5,000-seat theater in the Cleveland harbor, where divers and celebrity Olympic swimmers performed with a more than 500-member chorus. Rose boasted that he brought Broadway to Lake Erie. Tickets could cost as much as $1.50. You can see photos of the SS. Moses Cleaveland, a floating nightclub where President Franklin D. Roosevelt stayed.

“Cleveland set a standard for the energy and fun and wonder possible on our lakefront — an ideal we’ve been trying to reach ever since,” says an information sheet from the library.

The tabletop exhibit will remain in the special collections department on the third floor through at least Christmas. (Call 216-623-2847 to check hours.)