Great Lakes Exposition
City of New York, Byrd
City of New York, Byrd's ship at the Exposition
BIE-classUnrecognized exposition
NameGreat Lakes Exposition
Visitors4 million (season 1) and 7 million (season 2)
CountryUnited states
CityCleveland, Ohio
OpeningJune 27, 1936 (season 1)
ClosureOctober 5, 1936 (season 1)

The Great Lakes Exposition (also known as the World Fair of 1936) was held in Cleveland, Ohio, in the summers of 1936 and 1937, along the Lake Erie shore north of downtown.[1] The fair commemorated the centennial of Cleveland's incorporation as a city.[2] Conceived as a way to energize a city hit hard by the Great Depression, it highlighted the progress that had been achieved in the Great Lakes region in the last 100 years and indicated the path for future progress.[3] Covering over 135 acres of Cleveland's lakefront, it featured numerous attractions: rides, sideshows, botanical gardens, cafes, art galleries, and much more. Similar to the Chicago World's Fair, the exposition also wanted to expose visitors to other countries' cultures, celebrate American industry, and promote local businesses.[4] Although the Great Lakes Exposition was not as much of a world fair as the Chicago World's Fair was, the exposition drew 4 million visitors in its first season, and 7 million by the end of its second and final season in September 1937.


Community activist, Frank J. Ryan, and Lincoln G. Dickey, Cleveland's first public hall commissioner, came up with the idea for the exposition. Dudley S. Blossom, a local philanthropist, became chairman of the civic committee that contributed $1.5 million (about $30 million in 2021 dollars) to transform the idea into reality.[1]

It took 3,000 workers just 80 working days to construct the buildings, toilet facilities, sewers, gas, water, electricity, streets, and sidewalks to support an average daily attendance of 35,000 visitors. Much of the labor was provided by the Works Progress Administration.

On June 27, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened the exposition by pressing a button in Washington D.C. Initially planned for a 100-day run, the organizers kept it open 108 days the first year and then extended it in 1937 for another 121 days.[1]

The grand entrance flanked by seven towering brightly illuminated pylons was just west of East 6th street. Built on landfill in an area used as dumping grounds, the 135-acre exposition incorporated the Cleveland Municipal Stadium, Mall and the Public Auditorium. It featured a subway that connected the vast grounds with an area for pedestrians as well as for vehicles.[4] The total cost of the exposition after two years was $70 million.



The Midway was a big, central area in the exposition and encompassed many of the attractions including rides, sideshows, a Court of Presidents, an Automotive building, an art gallery, a marine theater, horticultural gardens, and a Hall of Progress, which had a television theater.[1] Some of the more unique attractions in the midway were Admiral Byrd's polar expedition ship the City of New York. The City was on show for the full length of the exhibition. The "Custer Car Speedway," a Venetian boat swing, and a "Ripley's Believe it or Not Odditorium" where oddities were displayed and sold.[5]


The exposition took full advantage of its location on the shore of Lake Erie. An elaborate botanical garden extended the length of Municipal Stadium. At the head of the garden was a three-story Horticultural Building resembling the forward deck of an ocean liner. From the deck, visitors could see a quarter million square feet of hillside rock gardens, waterfalls, rare plants, a giant fountain, and reflecting pools. High diving experts, national famous swimmers, and American Olympians put on regular demonstrations. Seaplane rides, a fleet of speed boats, launches, and paddle boats provide an opportunity to view he exposition and enjoy the breeze off Lake Erie.[1]

Added in the second year of the exhibition in 1937, Billy Rose's Aquacade put on water ballet shows and was the most popular attraction. Stretched out to Lake Erie, the aquacade had a 5000-seat theater-restaurant where the audience could dine while watching synchronized swimming, diving, and performances by Olympic champion swimmers Eleanor Holm and Johnny Weissmuller.[4] The show featured 4 episodes: "A Beach in California," "Coney Island," "A Beach in Florida," and "The Shores of Lake Erie". Although it was the most popular attraction at the Great Lake Exposition, it became more well known at the 1939 New York World's Fair.[5]

"Streets of the World"

The "Streets of the World" was an exhibit created to expose visitors to other countries' cultures and featured cafes and bazaars inspired by the countries they represented.[1] Food samples, entertainment, and goods from 40+ different countries were all provided on the "Streets of the World".[5]

Business Exhibits

Just beyond the Grand Entrance, in the Lakeside Exhibition Hall, were the iron and steel exhibits. Visitors entered the hall through "an authentic Minnesota mine shaft, set in the rugged, red hillside." Built in the exact dimensions of an operating mine, even to the timbers supporting the walls and ceiling, visitors felt they were in a real mine. The exhibition included a realistic full size blast furnace with a 125-ton ladle used to pour the molten meta. Further on, colored photo murals, life size reproductions of equipment and machinery, working models, and dioramas told the story of the Great Lakes and the importance of iron and steel.[1]

Although the exposition had no over all theme, "The Romance of Iron and Steel," became the unofficial exhibition theme.[1]

To promote their businesses, companies like White Motor Company, Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, Sherwin Williams, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, Higbee's department store, and General Electric were represented at the exposition.[3] Standard Oil had its very own exhibit and provided souvenir maps of the city, Higbee's had a store on site and an impressive tower, General Electric promoted its new fluorescent lights, and Goodyear provided blimp rides for visitors at the cost of $3.[4]

The exposition was a "gorgeous fantasy of illumination in the evening." The November 1936 issue of The Ohio State Engineer noted that there was a greater intensity of light per acre at the exposition than any previous exposition in American history. Cleveland, after all, was the center of the lighting industry, both in research and practice with Nela Park, the home of General Electric lighting business, and the National Electric Light Association.[1]

Unusual Exhibits

The exposition also featured some exhibits that would be considered offensive by modern standards, including 260 pound ballerinas, a midget circus, a recreation of old Southern plantation life, and nude can-can dancers (who were eventually banned).[4]

Torso Murder Death Mask on exhibit
Torso Murder Death Mask on exhibit


Celebrities were also present at the exposition to entertain visitors. Besides Olympic champion swimmers Eleanor Holm and Johnny Weissmuller who performed in the aquacade, track and field Olympian and hometown hero Jesse Owens, the world's most famous munchkin (although not famous from the Wizard of Oz yet) Meinhardt Raabe, Rudy Vallee and his band, Al Tomaini, and Jimmy Durante were also at the exposition.[4]


Another attraction was a floating stage on the current site of the Great Lakes Science Center; the stage was home to jazz concerts by the Bob Crosby Orchestra.

A Renoir, Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando on show at the exhibition
A Renoir, Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando on show at the exhibition

Post Exposition

The exposition was dismantled quickly, taken down right after closing day on September 26, 1937. Only the Donald Gray Gardens were left standing behind Cleveland Stadium until 1997 when FirstEnergy Stadium was starting construction.[4] The total number of visitors after both summers was 7 million (compared to Chicago's exposition of 27 million total visitors) and was less than hoped for. Any plans for permanent recreation facilities along the lakeside were not achieved.[6]


Although the Great Lakes Exposition gained some international attention, it never became a world fair. The area of town that was used for the vast exposition is now home to the Great Lakes Science Center, FirstEnergy Stadium, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.[5]


In October 2010, the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. opened an exhibition titled Designing Tomorrow: America's World’s Fairs of the 1930s.[7] This exhibition, which was available for view until September 2011, prominently featured the Great Lakes Exposition.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Great Lakes Exposition". Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Case Western Reserve University. Retrieved 2022-02-22.
  2. ^ Trickey, Erick (July 2006). "Sex, Celebrity & Carnival Charm". Cleveland Magazine. Retrieved 2022-02-23.
  3. ^ a b "The Great Lakes Exposition". The Cleveland Memory Project. Retrieved 2022-02-23.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g DeMarco, Laura (2016-07-28). "Great Lakes Exposition: A world's fair to remember opened 80 years ago this summer in Cleveland". The Plain Dealer. Retrieved 2022-02-23.
  5. ^ a b c d "Great Lakes Exposition of 1936". Ohio Memory. 2012-06-22. Retrieved 2022-02-23.
  6. ^ "Great Lakes Expo, 1936-37". Cleveland Historical. Retrieved 2017-05-29.
  7. ^ "Designing Tomorrow: America's World's Fairs of the 1930s". National Building Museum. Retrieved 2022-02-23.