Krystyna Nowakowska

The Polish Pavilion at New York’s World’s Fair in 1939

In 1939, when Poland was preparing to participate in the World’s Fair in New York with a truly „American” flair, Western Europe was mobilizing for war – and war was already being waged in Asia. However, it was not military clashes that were in Poland’s national interest, but further economic development and the urgent need to iron out the differences resulting from being occupied by three foreign empires for 123 years. What reigned in the mood of Polish society was great enthusiasm and pride in having regained the long awaited, at times only dreamed-of independence – and not the wish for revenge over losses suffered in World War I.

With Poland being threatened with military aggression, there was a need for positive messaging to integrate and spiritually bind the citizenry together. The important hitherto foreign and domestic policy successes – e.g., maintaining independence, consolidating Polish lands, agrarian reform, and winning the war against the Bolsheviks in 1920 – were not sufficiently publicized. Thus, participation in the 1939 World’s Fair in New York offered a chance to achieve a resounding success, an opportunity for Poles to present their best side to both an international audience and the Polish community abroad. This was to include showcasing the country’s achievements across the board – from economic progress to tourist attractions. The World’s Fair also allowed Poles to remind the world that theirs was a country with a thousand years of tradition, a fact not widely appreciated then. „Under these conditions”, wrote in late 1937 Sylwester Gruszka, Consul General of the Republic of Poland in New York, “the presence of Poland at the New York exhibition should be considered essential. This is made clear not only by the development of our trade with the United States and its possibilities for further growth, especially on the basis of the permanent communication line to Poland, but also by the fact that more than four million Poles live in this country”.

Organizing the New York World’s Fair, 1939 – 1940

The era of world fairs was inaugurated by the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, held in London in 1851, which by its pioneering and model character significantly influenced all subsequent events of this kind. For it highlighted the economic transformation that was taking place in what was then the continent’s largest power, and at the same time opened the world’s markets to mass-produced goods and ushered in the era of free competition and, consequently, globalization.

Thus, the world’s fairs, called Expos from 1958, became significant catalysts in the development of civilization and fascinating phenomena of progress for the public. One measure of their standing was the ever-increasing number of visitors. A large role was played by symbolic constructions, signs, slogans, specially commissioned music and works of art for each occasion, color schemes and advertising activities – all of this emphasizing the uniqueness of each event. The pictorial culture of these exhibitions, expressed through tidy, symbolic representations of issues, given in a way that was easy for the viewer to digest, spoke of the new era that was dawning – and in which many people were already living.

However, what is most important for the development of human civilization has always been the ideas and programs for the future of the world. Before the outbreak of World War II, the best set of such ideas was provided by the New York World’s Fair of 1939-1940, which set itself ambitious plans and difficult challenges as had no world’s fair before. For the first time, a forward-looking, ahead-of-its-time trajectory was set for the development of humankind in the spirit of democracy and solidarity. This was expressed by the slogan „The World of Tomorrow”.

View of the World’s Fair in New York

The goal thus set carried a valuable charge of optimism, hope for positive transformation, and a change of fortune for Americans and other nations of the world after the crash of the New York Stock Exchange and the continuing global economic crisis. To overcome the Depression and stimulate positive economic conditions and consumption, a recovery program was needed. It was presented in May 1935 by two American visionaries: Joseph F. Shagden and Edward F. Roosevelt. Theirs was a proposal to organize a world exhibition for „happiness, hope, and profit” However, the official motive for its organization became the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the election of George Washington as President of the United States of America. The World’s Fair succeeded in attracting 33 exhibitors from the United States and 60 from abroad, thus providing an opportunity to demonstrate during the two seasons of the exhibition in 1939 and 1940 the interrelationship of all the states of America in competition with the countries of the world.

The location of the Fair was boldly placed in the centrally-located Queens neighborhood, where there were extensive marshes and wet meadows that had been the site of a giant landfill for 30 years. Transportation access here was provided by the Grand Central Parkway, which had been in operation since 1932. It took a lot of imagination and determination to decide to transform this area into a well-maintained, green exhibition area with lakes and lagoons, and a great deal of work to accomplish this in such a short time. On June 29, 1936, a ceremony was held to inaugurate the work, and the reclamation process, which took just over a year, was completely successful. This one-of-a-kind demonstration of recycling made the world aware of the possibility of creating new value from the waste of the past.

The center piece of the Exhibition – the statue of George Washington against the backdrop of the Perisphere by night

It was also decided that after all the expositions were closed, the exhibition grounds would become the Flushing Meadows Park. A time capsule was buried in the ground of the future park. This was a metal canister of considerable size, in which microfilms containing millions of pages of world literature and everyday objects were placed. In this way, a message was left for future generations telling of the level of civilization in 1939.

In order to create the new values of the „World of Tomorrow” through architecture, industrial design, new technologies, and commerce closely linked to modern life, the leading artists of those years were summoned. This included the architect Norman Bel Geddes, industrial designers Walter Dorwin Teaque, Raymond Loewy, and Henry Dreyfuss, and interior designer Donald Deskey. They convinced US corporations that the beauty of the pure forms and streamed lines of Bauhaus and Art Deco styles could influence the sales of their products. The most interesting designs in the streamline spirit were created in industrial architecture, which astounded with novel ideas and technical solutions in buildings such as the General Motors pavilion named „Highways and Horizons”, and the Ford pavilion with the „Road of Tomorrow” presentation. The influence of Art Deco design appeared throughout the exhibition, in bas-reliefs on building facades, stand-alone sculptures, and architectural details as found on the Chrysler building.

In addition, 370 buildings of various types and purposes were erected as part of the overall project, including the 100 main pavilions, ones only two stories high so as not to obstruct the view of Manhattan. The architectural sensation and logo of the New York World’s Fair became two gigantic structures with geometric forms, called the Trylon and Perisphere. The Trylon, a trilateral spire 212 meters high, was meant to express the pursuits and aspirations of the American people, while the Perisphere – the size of an apartment block and 56 meters in diameter – symbolized our world, the globe on which we live.

View of the Trylon and Perisphere (by architects Wallace K. Harrison and Jacques A. Fouilhoux), 1939

The leading display, in the lower part of the spherical Perisphere, was a diorama titled Democracity, creating a vision of a city of a million in 2039. It was presented on a giant mock-up with a simultaneous display of an ensemble of multiple slides, which the public admired from above on rotating galleries running around. Its author was Henry Dreyfuss. Visitors traveled the road to an ideal future in six minutes via the world’s tallest escalator located at the bottom of the Trilon, then passed through one of the moving rings to the sound of music by William Grant Still, performed by André Kostelanetz, to the City of Democracy. The exhibition was immensely popular; more than 8,000 people visited it within an hour, and the images of the Trylon and Perisphere became – next to the Eiffel Tower – the most impressive architectural symbols of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The second exhibition, the most momentous in the experiential sense, was Futurama, which was dubbed the window to the future, as it highlighted the role of science and technology in building the modern „World of Tomorrow”. Designed by Norman Bel Geddes in the pavilion of General Motors, it displayed highways, streets, villages, and cities. In addition to futuristic visions depicting the world in the 1960s, ones which cost $8 million, it showcased for the first time the technological inventions of American industry, most notably IBM’s counting machines, robots, three-dimensional film, color photography, as well as nylon, Plexiglas, and the copier.

The opening ceremony of the World’s Fair in New York, April 30, 1939, with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt speaking

The opening ceremony of the World’s Fair in New York, held on April 30, 1939, was attended by members of the US government – headed by President Roosevelt – as well as members of the Senate and House of Representatives; the governors of all 48 states; thousands of state and national dignitaries; and finally, distinguished representatives of foreign countries. The guest of honor was Albert Einstein, who symbolically opened the exhibition. There was also an impressive parade, in which US Army and Navy troops marched under the banners of each state. Behind the troops of the army paraded representatives of the individual countries participating in the exhibition, all wearing national costumes. The opening of the World’s Fair was televised on US soil for the first time in history.

The New York exhibition became the culmination of the interwar world’s search for new technological and artistic solutions, a kind of laboratory for many outstanding designers and artists. The American economy won commercial success and a much-needed boost in the form of thousands of prototype designs of objects in the new streamlined stylistic trend which became popular in Europe after the war.


View of the World’s Fair in New York by night, 1939

In spite of the existing facts and growing conflicts, especially in Europe, the state authorities of the Second Republic of Poland declared the country’s participation in the World’s Fair in New York as the 58th country. The matter was communicated to the Commissioner of the World’s Fair for European Affairs Albin Johnson and the Polish Consulate General in New York on November 12, 1937. Poland’s significant achievements in the previous world exhibitions in Paris in 1925 and in 1937 augured another prestigious success, this time on American soil, which indeed seemed an extremely favorable circumstance.

For the Polish government, public relations goals were important to achieve, as mentioned above, but economic goals were the priority, in keeping with the exhibition’s chief slogan of building the „World of Tomorrow”. Therefore, the „Futurama” of the young, reborn Polish state could be offered by domestic production.

The metal industry in the 1930s included a wide range of products, the aerospace industry was developing well, and the work of Polish designers won many awards abroad. The situation was similar in the electrical engineering industry, which produced a variety of products, including radio apparatuses sent for export. The chemical industry, represented by the ”United Nitrogen Compound Factories in Mościce and Chorzów”, was entirely the result of Poland’s twenty years of independence. And finally, the textile industry, with old traditions and high-quality wool and cotton products, yielded exports worth 60 million złoties. „Besides, there is no doubt”, wrote Consul Sylwester Gruszka, spinning far-reaching and probably unrealistic plans, „that the exhibition in question will be of not only national, but also pan-oceanic importance, radiating beyond the 130-million-strong US market, especially to Canada, Central and South America, Cuba, and the Far East. It is also not insignificant that the timing of the New York exhibition coincides with our aforementioned expansion into the market here. […] Due to the well-known unique character of the United States, it would be advisable to place the accent on the utilitarian-practical, i.e. economic-commercial aspects of our participation in the New York exhibition”.

It should be stressed that the largest investments of interwar Poland were financed by the state, due to the relative scarcity of domestic private capital. In 1927, the Polish government received a $62 million stabilization loan from the United States (representing just less than a billion dollars today), which was considered a great success. In the 1930s, due to the threat of another war, the need to rearm the army increased, and the debt repayments to the US were suspended. Poland’s invitation to participate in the New York World’s Fair thus became an opportunity not only to showcase Poland’s own cultural achievements, but above all to increase exports, obtain new loans, and the possibility of canceling previously incurred debts.

Hitler’s unexpected „Anschluss” with Austria in early 1938, followed by the occupation of the Sudetenland and, shortly thereafter, Czechoslovakia as a whole, changed the balance of power in Europe. The translation of these events into trade arrangements created an import gap in the American market as a result of the ban on trade with Germany (and thus with both Austria and occupied Czechoslovakia). The Polish government decided to take advantage of the new reality and treat it as a great opportunity for expanding trade with the US. This loomed as altogether inasmuch as it coincided with a period of the liberalization of American economic policy and the very preparations for the opening of the World’s Fair in New York.

A view of the Polish Pavilion

Professor Stefan de Ropp, an outstanding expert extensively educated abroad in economics, finance, and propaganda, was appointed commissioner general of the Polish Pavilion. As a long-time director of the Poznań International Fair (MTP), he was already a proven organizer of many events, including the 1930 International Exhibition of Communication and Tourism, which won for Polish industry orders of 50 million złoties and Ropp’s appointment as the co-director of the MTP, responsible, among other things, for foreign contacts and trade markets, including the American market. He also found his way into international trade structures, chairing the Propaganda Committee and the Economic Committee at the Congresses of the Association of International Fairs in Bordeaux and Rome in 1931. From 1937, he was politically involved in the activities of the Oboz Zjednoczenia Narodowego (OZN) as a member of the Provincial Board in Poznań. According to the Polish Biographical Dictionary (vol. XXXII), he was awarded the Order of Polonia Restituta, the Gold Cross of Merit, and the Order of the Romanian Crown. One of his close relatives was Mogilev’s Archbishop Edward Ropp, who resided in Poland and had been imprisoned by the Bolsheviks in 1919, a widely known and respected figure. Notwithstanding his agreement to prepare this largest presentation of national achievements on the international stage, Prof. Ropp pledged to continue carrying out his duties at the MTP.

An executive body was also established – namely, the „Permanent Organizing Committee for Poland’s Participation in the 1939 New York World’s Fair „, also known as the Exhibition Committee, headed by August Zaleski (former foreign minister), then director of the Economic Bank of Warsaw and president of the Polish-American Chamber of Commerce. He entrusted Ropp with another function, that of director of the Polish Pavilion, in which capacity Ropp was to take care of the economic side of the undertaking and to operate on similar principles to those that became the basis for the organization of the World’s Fair in New York, that is, on a largely self-supporting basis, especially in terms of furnishing the exposition in the Polish Pavilion.

Financially, the Exhibition Committee bore the brunt of the exposition, as government funds were allocated (as reported in the „Editorial Material of the General Commissariat in New York”) in the sum of 3.5 million złoties for the construction of the Polish Pavilion building alone. In turn, the costs of the Commissariat included the purchase of exhibits, their insurance, transportation, assembly, preparation of the exhibition in New York, and honoraria for a large group of specialists.

Thus, Ropp was given full authority to make decisions regarding the implementation of the Polish Pavilion, but was nevertheless supervised at all times by government officials at home (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Industry and Trade), along with Poland’s Washington embassy and New York consulate, while reporting directly to August Zaleski, the chairman of the Exhibition Committee. The composition of the Committee leaves no doubt about the economic goals the Polish government set for the World’s Fair. In addition to Chairman August Zaleski, the Committee included many important people from the country’s economic circles and individual ministries, representing industry, agriculture, and forestry, as well as communications and tourism, as well as crafts and trade. The Exhibition Committee was formally attached to the Foreign Trade Council, with its headquarters at 10 Wiejska St. in Warsaw, as indicated on the letterhead of its earliest correspondence. In addition, an Honorary Committee was established, headed by Archbishop Dr. Stanislaw Gall and the now elderly Ignacy Paderewski, the former prime minister and renowned Polish pianist with great influence in America.

As an aside, it should be added that despite his undoubted merits both for Poznań and for both the level of presentation within the Polish Pavilion and the subsequent protection of its valuable exhibits after the closing of the World’s Fair, the evaluations of Commissioner Ropp are often negative in connection with the fact that the 7 historical paintings of the Brotherhood of St. Luke were left behind in the US.

No documents have survived that speak directly about the ideological program on the basis of which the entire establishment of the Polish Pavilion was realized, but the competitions for the design of its edifice, the decoration of the Hall of Honor and other sections of the exhibition, as well as the historical essays included in the extensive Catalogue, and finally the remaining correspondence, do clearly define it.

The conclusion of World War I, known as the Great War, brought a new order in Europe and of course for Poland, which – like many other nations – regained its coveted independence. The Polish state, created on the basis of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, in many societies seemed to have been established in 1918 for the very first time, so it became an overriding task to change that mistaken belief. Poland’s new cultural image was to be built on Latin metrics, showing elements of Poland’s fame and glory – importantly, from periods preceding the late 18th century when the country was carved up by its three imperial neighbors – along with the successes of the dynamically developing young state. The two-pronged thematic arrangement of the exhibitions in the Polish Pavilion, relating both to messaging activities and those promoting the economy, reflected the catchy slogan: „Poland’s Past and Future”, which was the ideological pillar of the undertaking. Lech Niemojewski, former commissioner general of the Polish Pavilion in Paris in 1937, stated that since the Poles could not impress Americans with skyscrapers, they should present their literature, art, and valiant chivalry, and this is largely what happened.

The Polish Pavilion. At the entrance we see the statue of King Władysław Jagiełło, carved by Stanisław K. Ostrowski

The creators of the Polish Pavilion, carrying out an official state order, realized that in the circumstance of the time, voicing slogans of optimism in not only the ideological, but also the political sphere was a necessity. When the decision to participate in the World’s Fair was made and then being implemented, there was a growing real threat to the country’s independence from both Nazi Germany and the East. There was a well-founded fear of revenge from the USSR over its loss in the Polish-Bolshevik war of 1920.

These aspects became evident in the entire program of the Polish Pavilion: in the architectural concept of the building, in the interior solutions of the Hall of Honor and other sections, and in the contents of the Catalog. The display of Poland’s cultural, scientific, and economic achievements was thus created to showcase Poland’s capabilities and express the ambitions of those in power – above all, to comprehensively illustrate and document pre-war Poland. This portrayal omitted themes of martyrdom, but to a large extent it created an optimistic vision for the country and boasted the impressive achievements Poland had carried out during just 20 years. In this way, it fit in with the futuristic motto of the World’s Fair –  „Building the World of Tomorrow”.

The Industrial Hall at the Polish Pavilion

Feverish preparation of exhibits commenced at once in Poland, and work began in New York to receive them. Following numerous negotiations on a location for the pavilion, the Poles managed to obtain a suitable site on Continental Avenue, where most of the foreign representations were located, including the building of the Federal Government of the United States. The area for the construction of state pavilions was granted free of charge, with the cost of their construction being paid individually by each participant. The management of the New York Fair estimated the value of making one cubic foot (without decoration) at 6 dollars.

General Competition no. 95. for the development of a sketch design of the Polish Pavilion was resolved in February 1938. The jury of the competition, which included professors from Polish polytechnics and prominent architects from Warsaw, Lviv, Poznań, Katowice, and Kraków, made a selection from almost 100 submissions. The third-prize-winning project by two young architects, Jan Cybulski and Jan Galinowski, and painter Felicjan Szczęsny Kowarski, was selected for realization in New York. Detailed plans and photographs of the project were sent to New York, where, as reported in the press, „on April 8 [1938], the architectural council of the New York exhibition, which included dozens of the most prominent architects and architecture critics of the United States, approved the plans for the Polish Pavilion, while expressing the highest praise for the artistic solution of modern architecture with an element of traditionalism”.

On July 4, 1938, the groundbreaking ceremony for the future pavilion took place, and after lengthy negotiations, the construction was commissioned to the largest American company, George Fuller, via a contract worth 17,000 złoties. Construction lasted from September 1 to the end of December, and in January work began on installing ceilings, stands, and display cases. The American press commented not so much on the construction process as on the bold decision: „Poland’s participation in the World’s Fair means that Poland is not afraid of political turmoil in Europe in the times to come”, which spoke well of the strength of Poilish messaging. It should be noted that the final form of the pavilion was modernized and implemented based on a joint project by Galinowski and Cybulski and the American company Cross & Cross. This cooperation had a positive effect on the overall effect of the building, giving it impact and alluring architecture.

Built on a rectangular plan, the Polish Pavilion had a single storey 10 meters high, elevated in the central part. To the right and left ran side wings that extended beyond the line of the facade, with deep loggias and slender 7-meter-high relief-decorated columns. In the small courtyard formed inside was lofty 56-meter (18-story) high Golden Tower, „being in expression a synthesis of Polish medieval towers”. It was constructed of a steel truss, to which were attached stylized shields of gilded copper in the shape of squares with chamfered corners, slightly concave sides, and a decorated surface. They were connected by striking buttons. The Golden Tower had two entrances: side entrances and the main representative one over which hung the emblem of Poland. The Pavilion’s facades were covered with regular squares, forming a light sandstone faced plane. In accordance with the recommendations of the World’s Fair Board, the interior of the Pavilion had no windows, was artificially lit, and air-conditioned. The floor of the terrace in front of the Pavilion was lined with blue granite, with an inset of travertine surrounding the courtyard. The space between the sidewalk and the front wall was filled with ponds and flowerbeds with red azaleas. Flower beds with pink tulips were created in the meadow, and trees were planted at a cost of $1,200. They are clearly visible on a color postcard of the Polish Pavilion preserved in the archives of The Polish Museum of America in Chicago.

Next to the pavilion was erected a rotunda that housed a luxurious, fully-windowed restaurant with six hundred seats, a modern bar, an inn and a terrace café. This building was separated from Continental Avenue by a garden that took up the rest of the Polish exhibition area. The curiosity of the Polish press was aroused by the inn, which was a replica of an authentic building from the 16th century, copied to the last detail not only in terms of decor, decoration, furniture, but also the costumes of the staff. A faithful reflection of that time was also the menu, including highly recommended century-old Polish honey.

The public-outreach booth of the Maritime and Colonial League, designed by Maciej Nehring

In front of the entrance to the Pavilion, against the backdrop of the openwork Golden Tower, an equestrian statue of King Władysław Jagiełło, by Stanisław K. Ostrowski, was placed, accentuating the tense situation in Polish-German relations. The work, named by the author  Jagiełło – Victorious, was cast in bronze using the old „lost wax” method in the workshop of the master Marinelli in Florence. Another work by Ostrowski was also created there: a more than two-meter-high statue of Marshal Józef Piłsudski.

The becrowned king is depicted on a horse and wears full armor, in the historical moment preceding the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. In both hands raised high above his head, Jagiełło holds two crossed swords handed to him by Teutonic heralds with a taunting invitation to fight. The sculpture, more than 3 meters high, is set on a 4-meter plinth with the inscription POLAND. The inscription with the king’s name was not placed here in order not to, one guesses, aggravate the already tense political relations between Poland and Germany. „For the artist, the subject was intended to create a thing similar to the Victoire on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris […]. The artist, by raising these swords into a cross, wanted to make it a symbol of the victory of faith over arms”, Stanisław Ostrowski wrote about the idea of his work in 1943.

The Polish Pavilion, completed in a short time, was characterized by a mood of solemnity and at the same time festooned with decorativeness, thanks to the effects achieved by juxtaposing the simple geometric forms of the edifice’s architecture with the lacy structure of the soaring Golden Tower. This image was complemented by the dynamic, expressive horse statue of the King-Victor, all against the backdrop of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. Despite modest means, the Pavilion stood out in form, as evidenced by the opinions of American reviewers and organizers of the World Exposition. The constructivist, austere edifice and the decorative structure of the golden shields of the Tower, combining modernity with tradition, and created in architectural shorthand a clear vision of the message of the Poland of the Past and the Poland of Tomorrow.

tłum. Agnieszka Wolska