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NYPL TV: 1939-40 World's Fair Democracity Re-Creation

May 17, 2011

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At the heart of the 1939-1940 World's Fair, inside the Perisphere itself, lay the Democracity exhibit and its key element, Centerton, a futuristic city modeled in miniature. In planning this creation, famed industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss took several cues from Le Corbusier's proposed Ville Radieuse (Radiant City). Like Le Corbusier, Dreyfuss envisioned an urban environment in which the different land uses—government, business, shopping, and housing—were located in separate districts. Pedestrian-free, high-speed roadways linked these districts, while also whisking people into the countryside beyond. To a remarkable extent, this vision describes the United States that we now inhabit.

The Democracity exhibit featured two rotating spectator platforms, providing a panoramic view of the Centerton model and its surroundings. Visitors watched a roughly six-minute show featuring a spoken program, narrated by radio commentator H. V. Kaltenborn, special lighting effects, and a musical score by the African American composer William Grant Still. The show was to have ended with a "Polaroid light" display, but Grover Whalen, the Fair's President, deemed that finale too costly.

This video, part of the Biblion World's Fair app available for download from iTunes, represents a story made from items available in The New York Public Library's collections. In attempting to recreate the Democracity show, researchers from the Library uncovered draft versions of Kaltenborn's narration as well as lighting and music cues. Then, a team of animators blended photographs of the Perisphere's interior and early Centerton models—taken from the Library's online Digital Gallery—and re-mixed these images with new 3D animations, giving a sense of how the Fair's visitors might have experienced "Tomorrow's World in Miniature." As a small chorus sings Still's "Rising Tide" theme, Paul LeClerc, the tenth head of The New York Public Library, gives voice to the narration. Unlike the actual show in 1939, this new version ends with a fanciful display of lights.