Machinery Hall, Centennial Exposition 1876, Philadelphia

Machinery Hall, Centennial Exposition 1876, Philadelphia

By Manpreet Singh

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Edited by: Isabelle Gournay
Edited by: Patricia Kosco Cossard
Header creation and encoding by: Patricia Kosco Cossard

Essay on Machinery Hall, a building of the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania created as a final assignment in World's Fairs: Social and Architectural History, HONR 219F, Spring 2003

Essays on the Material Culture of the World's Fairs
Edited by: Patricia Kosco Cossard and Isabelle Gournay
Published by:
University of Maryland Libraries
University of Maryland
College Park
Maryland 20720
Electronic version encoded on 2 February 2006

Titles of texts, foreign words, personal names, place and organisation names, and emphasized text have been encoded


  • Machinery Hall (Philadelphia, Pa.)
  • Exhibition buildings. Design and construction
  • Wilson, Joseph M.
  • Pettit, Henry, 1842-
  • Centennial Exhibition (1876: Philadelphia, Pa.)
  • Essay
  • 1801-1900
  • North America
  • United States
  • Pennsylvania
  • Philadelphia

As had been the case at the Crystal Palace Exhibition twenty five years before, America's industrial and agricultural prowess impressed most foreign visitors, thus giving a boost to American Foreign trade.

(Fair America)

To be considered in the same light as the Crystal Palace, the epitome of monumentality, was the biggest compliment any building could receive in the late nineteenth century. With its annex, Machinery Hall covered an area of 558,440 square feet, four times the space of St. Peter's in Rome (Bruce, 150). It demonstrated to the world that the United States had become a world power. It site in Fairmount Park, was considered the "largest and finest urban park in America" (Mass, 16). Like the Crystal Palace, Machinery Hall displayed large glazed areas, fashioned after those of greenhouses. Machinery Hall was considered a great step up from the Crystal Palace because of its larger size and added amenities which include, "rolling chairs," "telegraph offices," and a restaurant, which offered fifty-cent dinners. There was more vast space indoor and other conveniences to avoid the ventilation problems encountered from its predecessor, windows in Machinery Hall were operable. Louvre ventilators along the avenues and aisles were meant to lessen any discomfort created from a mainly glazed structure (Trout, 96).

Opened on May 10, 1876 the Centennial Exposition was considered to be the first successful world's fair in the United States. It celebrated the one-hundredth year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and America's beginnings as a sovereign nation. In the Machinery Hall many nations showcased their knowledge and power. This was the first time a world's fair pavilion was built exclusively to house machinery. The Machinery Hall was placed near the Main Exhibition Hall. From most viewpoints the two buildings seemed to fuse as they lined up and were separated by a short distance.

This image is a black and white artistic print of Machinery Hall, on a four by five inch section of card stock. It belongs to a series of prints, which is preserved in the Graphic Materials Collection at the University of Maryland School of Architecture and in a series that includes nine other drawings that were used as souvenirs to be sold at the fair. Other buildings that were drawn in the series include the Main, Horticulture, Original Independence Hall, the New Masonic Temple, Memorial, Women???s, City Public, and Agriculture building. The actual drawing is small in comparison with other renditions preserved at the University of Maryland. The actual building was 1360 feet long, 360 feet wide, with an annex extending from the center 210 feet in depth. The picture on the card stock does not even fill up three by four inches, and at the bottom shows the dimensions of the pavilion.

The design of the building appears simplified, as many details have not been rendered. Hence we miss many key aspects of the real building. Decorative flags are on the top of the roof, with other features, which are difficult to identify. The exterior does not express the mechanical character of the exhibits and could be confused for that of a library. In addition, we are given the impression that Machinery Hall stood alone in Fairmont Park when in actuality it was positioned "about 550 feet west of the Main Exhibition, its north front being upon the same line, so that, viewed from the interior of the grounds, this building appears to be a continuation of the other" (Westcott, 4). The image renders the monumentality of the design, but not its true visual qualities. Machinery Hall was well received, often earning praises for its design and appearance. The building was painted a "light and pleasing blue" which must have been striking among the other more boldly colored buildings at the fair. Eight entrances served to break up the facade and relieve its monotony. With a length "eighteen times its height" Machinery Hall had an almost never-ending silhouette (Trout, 94). Builders made sure to create a strong foundation, erecting "piers of masonry, upon which (were) erected solid timber columns" (Westcott, 4).

The Centennial Commission held a competition for the design of this particular building, offering awards to the top ten entries. The first prize was awarded to Collins and Autenrieth of Philadelphia, but their estimated construction cost of $10,050,000 was deemed too high by the commission. Which then selected the second placed entry by Calvert Vaux and George Kent Radford ok, as it was less expensive. Finding in turn that the latter proposal was also over budget, the commission approached the third prizewinners Joseph M. Wilson and Henry Pettit, engineers for the Pennsylvania Railroad (Mass, 32-33). They were hired to design the Main Building and Machinery Hall, which they accomplished on budget and time. Henry Pettit was born on December 23, 1842 in Philadelphia, and attended the University of Pennsylvania, but left during his junior year. From 1862 to 1874 he worked in the engineering department of the Pennsylvania Railroad, where he became acquainted with Joseph Wilson. In 1873, Pettit was sent to the Vienna Exposition by the U.S. Centennial Commission and returned to Philadelphia to play a vital role in the planning and construction of the fair. Pettit retained his interest in exposition buildings and was an advisor for the U.S. Commission to the Paris World???s Fair of 1878 and for the state of Pennsylvania at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Joseph M. Wilson was born on June 30, 1838 in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania and received his degree in civil engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, graduating in 1858. He began his career with the Pennsylvania Railroad. After the fair, Pettit and Wilson along with Wilson???s brother started Wilson Bros and Co. The company worked on many commissions including residences, commercial structures, and medical facilities, but its best-known work is probably the Drexel Institute (1893) at 32nd and Market streets in Philadelphia.

Machinery Hall's interior sheltered most memorable displays of industrial power. Popular exhibits included the mammoth Corliss Centennial Steam Engine, the 56-ton flywheel of which revolved without noise or vibration at 36 Rapids per a Minute. Other exhibits also included the Brayton Ready Motor or Hydrocarbon Engine, an early internal combustion engine, the Line-Wolf Ammonia Compressor for refrigeration and ice-making, the Otis Brothers and Co. Steam Elevator Machine, the Baldwin Locomotive Works Engine, the Lightning Rotary Cylinder Press, Seth Thomas's Great Clock, the Wallace-Farmer Electromagnetic Generator, and Alexander G. Bell's Telephonic Telegraphic Receiver. In Machinery Hall other industrialized nations, and Americans themselves, came to realize the potential of American technological development. Machinery Hall was represented and put on postcards and in official books for the fair. Machinery Hall also bears witness to the fact that in 1876, America's superiority was more technical than artistic.

The symbolic meaning of Machinery Hall was to show the world that the United States was achieving marvels in the industrial era. It also showed the role of machinery in modern life. The size of the building relied to that of the large engines it sheltered. Americans had the talent to not only construct an monumental building holding impressive machines, but were able to fill the inside of the building up with their machinery. Some critics were not impressed at all by the fair; they believed America was tricking people with their machines. "You call that an engine, the engines in England are much bigger"(Fair America,). They believed that England had the most advanced machinery and nothing new was presented by the Americans. There were also some who questioned the simplicity of the interiors. "The interior decorations are simple, the roof and pillars being painted in light colors, the object being to render the interior as light as possible" (Trout, 25). The inside of the building was sometimes criticized because it was so simple and hollow. The building received praise from many of the other fairgoers who were impressed with its size and stature. This was by far America???s first successful fair and Machinery Hall. Most foreign visitors were impressed with American technological know-how. Engineer John Anderson noted in one of the official British Reports "If we are to be judged by the comparison with Americans in 1876, as doubtless we shall be in the minds of other nations, it is more than probably that the effect will be to confirm... that we are losing our former leadership and it is passing to the Americans" (Centennial). The London Times also reported that "The American invents as the Greek sculpted and the Italian painted: it is genius" (Centennial). The report of the German Commissioner General, Franz Reuleaux, was unsparing in its praise for the American exhibits and its contempt for Germany's showing, "In arts and crafts Germany has nothing to show but propaganda and patriotic motifs. It seems seven eighths of the space are occupied by Krupp's giant guns, the 'killing machines' that stand like a menace among the peaceful works of the other nations" (Centennial).

The $792,000 cost for the building was paid by the city, which planned to preserve the building after the fair closed. Though the building was meant to stay, Machinery Hall today does not stand at Fairmont Park like it once used to and only exists through the pictures. Americans wished to display their progress in the world of industry. It was the first time a building was used to display industrial products, and Machinery Hall would continue in other fairs. As stated by Edward Bruce in The Century and its Fruits and its Festival, "No part of the exposition more vividly illustrates the changes of the century and accelerates it at pleasure" (150). The Machinery Hall was eventually demolished in 1877 and some of its original exhibits such as a few of the engines are now located in the Arts and Industries Building on the Mall in Washington, DC. The success of this Machinery Hall helped make sure it would become an integral part of major fairs to come, as there was one included in the Paris Exposition of 1889 and Columbian Exposition of 1893. In both fairs, the buildings were in the same structure with a vast size and hollow in the interiors to have enough room for the exhibitions. The buildings purpose proved well in showing what new technologies America had come up with during their first hundred years of independence and helped set a precedent for the Machinery Halls in 1889, 1893 and other fairs.

Works Cited

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Findling, John E., ed. Historical Dictionary Of World's Fairs And Expositions, 1851-1988.New York: Greenwood Press. 1990.
International exhibition of 1876: General views of the United States government building and contents.Boston: J.R. Osgood Co.. Plate. 1877.
Maass, John. The glorious enterprise: the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and H. J. Schwarzmann, architect-in-chief.New York: American Life Foundation. 1973.
Post, Robert C. ed. 1876: A Centennial Exhibition.Washington, D.C.: National Museum of History and Technology. 1976.
Rydell, Robert W.All the World's a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916.Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1984
Rydell, Robert W., John E. Findling, and Kimberly D. Pelle. Fair America: world's fairs in the United States.Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. c2000.
Smithsonian Institution. Libraries.Books Of The Fairs: Materials About World's Fairs, 1834-1916, In The Smithsonian Institution Libraries.Chicago: American Library Association. 1992.
Snyder, Iris. "The Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia, 1876." (accessed March, 2003).
Trout, Silas E.The Story of the Centennial of 1876.Lancaster, Pennsylvania. 1929.
Westcott, Thompson. A Centennial Portfolio. Philadelphia: T. Hunter. 1876.