Spokane's Moment in the Sun
Ask anyone on the street what they think Spokane is known for outside of the Northwest, and you might get several different answers. These might include Gonzaga Basketball or Bing Crosby, but a good number will probably mention the 1974 World's Fair.
Expo '74, as the fair was branded, thrust Spokane into the national and international consciousness in a way that it had never been before. Over 5 million fair-goers visited during the Expo's six-month run, nearly 30 times the city's population in the 1970 Census.
By most accounts, the Expo was successful, albeit smaller in total visitors and international participants than many fairs held in larger cities. The culmination of a 20-year urban renewal project, Expo '74 enabled a major overhaul of the downtown core, including the construction of what would become Riverfront Park. Injected with millions of dollars brought to the area by fair-goers, Spokane's economy received a much needed shot in the arm following decades of stagnation.
A Downtown in Need of Revitalization
By the late 1950's, Downtown Spokane was a blighted reminder of the urban decay gripping most of the nation's urban core areas. Havermale Island, located in the Spokane River, was haphazard crisscross of railroad tracks, unsightly abandoned warehouses, and rising crime.
A partnership of business leaders was formed, and a plan for renewing Spokane's urban core by 1980 was put forward. Influenced by the hosting of the Century 21 expo by Seattle in 1962, dialog between downtown interests and citizens' groups led to serious talk of a World's Fair for Spokane,
After several years of legislative wrangling, real estate deals, and government lobbying, Spokane was approved to host the 1974 fair, becoming the then smallest-ever city to host such an event. The site for the fair would be the blighted Havermale Island and surrounding areas along the Spokane River.
While most of the facilities constructed for the Expo were built from modular components and later removed, several prominent structures from the fair remain to this day. These include the U.S. Pavilion, a then-cutting-edge and still-operating IMAX theater, and the revitalized Great Northern Railroad clock tower, originally built in 1902.
An International Showcase
Due to Spokane's relatively remote location and perceived status as a small town, expectations for the fair were quite low. The public and media reactions, however, proved to be overwhelmingly positive and the Expo was lauded as being a truly international experience rather than simply a large-scale country fair, as many had assumed it would be.
Some of the well-received features of the Expo included the 14-story U.S. Pavilion, which was covered in white canvas and served as the amphitheater for the opening and closing ceremonies. The enormous Soviet Pavilion included a giant bust of Vladimir Lenin and a Russian-themed restaurant. Canada's pavilion, occupying an entire small island, featured Native American art and architecture and highlighted the biodiversity of the Pacific Northwest.
The six-month run of Expo '74 also included almost-daily live music, rides and attractions for children, appearances by celebrities and dignitaries, and a Folklife Festival that included performances by John Denver and Gordon Lightfoot.
The Expo also had the unusual distinction of being opened and closed by different U.S. Presidents. The May 4th opening ceremony, attended by over 85,000 people, was presented by Richard Nixon, at that time engulfed in the Watergate Scandal. Nixon resigned the Presidency three months later, and Gerald Ford issued pre-recorded remarks for the Expo's closing ceremony on November 3rd.
written by:John Spracklen