Marking The 80th Anniversary Of Texas Centennial Exposition, When 'America Discovered Dallas' | KERA News

Marking The 80th Anniversary Of Texas Centennial Exposition, When 'America Discovered Dallas'

Jun 9, 2016

In 1936, Fair Park in Dallas hosted a State Fair on steroids. The Texas Centennial Exposition was a five-month long celebration of Texas culture and of the state's independence from Mexico. Many say this event helped put Dallas on the map.

Willis Winters is the director of the Dallas Park and Recreation Department and he explores the Texas Centennial Exposition

Interview Highlights: Willis Winters ...

... on the origins of the Texas Centennial Exposition: "In 1936, the state of Texas celebrated its 100th anniversary of its independence from Mexico ... Fair Park [was] transformed from a state fair into a sort of a regional world's fair in 1936 celebrating that time and that event. So in the '30s, there were six world's fairs held in the United States; of those six, which represent the great era of world's fairs in America, Fair Park is the only intact exposition site remaining. We've got almost all of the original art deco buildings still intact, and this whole celebration of the world's fair is represented at Fair Park in that great era in American history."

... on how Dallas snagged the honor of hosting the exposition: "It's a typical Dallas story where money speaks, so to speak. So, in their bid to the Centennial Commission, Dallas put in a bid of $25 million, which no other city could match. That was a lot of money at the time. We had a huge exposition ground and cash that basically constituted the Dallas bid. The Centennial Commission awarded the designation as the centennial city to Dallas."

Watch: Centennial films 

Scenes from Fair Park from 1936

A Universal newsreel declares: "Last-minute inventions give a perfect check on the degree of pulchritude possessed by lovely models seeking jobs with a Texas Centennial Committee. In one test, the girls are fitted into life-sized cutouts of the perfect figure." (From Texasarchive.org)

... on how Dallas prepared for the celebration: "The buildings that were built at Fair Park -- they incorporated the buildings that were previously here and built for the State Fair and those buildings, some of them dated back to 1905, all received an art deco makeover by the centennial architect George Dahl. These buildings were all built to be permanent. It's a misconception that the buildings at Fair Park were built to be temporary. For a lot of fairs that was true. But in Dallas, the buildings, the exhibit buildings here are steel and block and permanent construction."

... on the events held at the 1936 expo: "Mainly exhibitions, indoor exhibitions, and there were a couple of firsts for Dallas and for the Texas Centennial. No. 1 was the first air conditioned world's fair in history. They were advertising that you could walk. ... Of course, it was hot that summer in 1936; visitors to the fair could walk seven miles through indoor pathways through buildings in 'air conditioned comfort.' But mainly people came to the fair to look at exhibits. There's almost 1 million square feet of exhibit halls. The Centennial Exposition itself is the event that I described in a book I wrote on Fair Park as 'the year that America discovered Dallas.' Not Texas but Dallas. This is the year that people got on trains and came to Dallas to see the exposition or got in their cars and drove halfway across America. Before that, Dallas was a city of about 300,000 people, it was a successful city but it was a city that had no national or very low national identity and I think the Centennial Exposition pushed Dallas to that higher stage. The following year, in 1937, with the Pan American Exposition, that was the year that nations from Central and South America came to Dallas and set up exhibits. In my view, it's the first time that Dallas took a step onto the international stage for the very first time."

Willis Winters is the director of the Dallas Park and Recreation Department.

Celebrating a big anniversary

A four-day celebration is underway at Fair Park to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Texas Centennial Exposition. More information on the celebration is available here.

More Centennial films

Watch more Texas Centennial Exposition films at the website of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image.