A Story of Stewardship

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“Japanese Pagoda – Fairmount Park,” ca. 1910. (PhillyHistory.org)

The 1904 St. Louis’ Louisiana Purchase Exposition was a gigantic affair: nearly twice the size of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and quadruple Philadelphia’s Centennial in 1876.  For Japan, the increasing scale of America’s world’s fairs turned out to be just about the perfect platform to demonstrate its expanded ambitions for the world stage. The Japanese occupied seven acres in St. Louis, more than any other nation outside the United States.

Japan had emerged as the Far East’s imperial nation and its colonial power—“the protector of Chinese territory,” according to historian Carol Christ. (Just a few months before the fair opened, Japan had attacked Russia on Chinese soil and was on its way to a decisive victory, the first time an Asian country defeated a European power.)

Japan also expressed its dominance in the creative realm. As the heir of Asian culture and the “sole guardians of the art inheritance,” Japan positioned itself as keeper of the “museum of Asiatic civilization.” When Russia backed out of their commitment to exhibit in St. Louis, Japan the imperial power and cultural ambassador stepped in with purpose and commandeered the Russian space.

Japan’s exhibition buildings were “built entirely by native carpenters,” in styles perfected hundreds of years earlier, declared one guidebook. Set in landscapes with gardens, hills, waterfalls, lakes and bridges, accented with imported, centuries old, “beautifully trained dwarf trees…drooping wisteria…peony, scented lily and blushing maple”—it all added up to a “harmonized…artistic” whole. For visitors from around the world, Japan curated a one-of a kind experience that sent a powerful message: Asian power had arrived.

And there was more. By the fair’s main entrance, millions were lured onto the Pike, a mile-long, carnival-like collection of attractions open late into the evenings. “The Pike” offered up contortionists, dancing girls and a “Zoological Paradise” complete with an elephant water slide. Visitors went “deep sea” diving, scaled miniature replicas of the Tyrolean Alps, rode burros along constructed cliff dwellings and toured “Blarney Castle.” Especially popular were rides inspired by the biblical version of “Creation” and another ride with the “Hereafter” as its theme. The Pike also staged military reenactments: the Boer War, the Spanish-American War and, the Russo-Japanese War, still in progress.

No concession on the Pike stood out more than Japan’s. Entering through a massive, 150-foot  gateway –a “replica of the famous portal in Nekko, Japan” visitors strolled “a Street of Tokyo,” brought alive by 80 actors in traditional costume. Everything was new, though constructed to appear ancient and venerable, except for one artifact that didn’t need to feign authenticity, a 45-foot tall temple gate that, for the previous three centuries, had graced the Hitachi Provence, about 120 miles northeast of Tokyo.

Japanese Temple Gate, Fairmount Park. Autochrome by Emil Albrecht, ca. 1912.  (The Library Company of Philadelphia).

Japanese Temple Gate, Fairmount Park. Autochrome by Emil Albrecht, ca. 1912. (The Library Company of Philadelphia).

What would become of such a treasure when the crowds returned home? John H. Converse and Samuel Vauclain, who had made their fortunes at Philadelphia’s Baldwin Locomotive Works, imagined the “Nio-Mon, or, Temple Gate” as a picturesque addition to Fairmount Park. They bought it, paid for its transportation, reconstruction and landscaping—completed with tons of boulders worn smooth in the nearby Darby Creek. Converse and Vauclain, with additional help from John T. Morris, transformed the grove between Memorial Hall and Horticultural Hall into a picturesque and peaceful destination.

But peaceful in a big city park can be vulnerable. From the start, the City and the Fairmount Park Art Association (where Converse and Morris served on the board) took protective measures.  Artifacts exhibited inside the temple gate’s second-story chamber were transferred to Memorial Hall and later to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (One still survives in the Asian Art gallery.) But without fences or a guard, Philadelphia’s new, hidden treasure became an easy target.

Architect Albert Kelsey had seen it coming: “I deplore the possibility of this beautiful temple becoming merely another scattered unit in a poorly planned park that has not, in many instances, been laid out to heighten the effect of the many valuable works of art it possesses.” Morris called for the installation of “wire guards” to prevent “acts of barbaric young American(s), who take pleasure in stoning these fine specimens of Japanese wood carvings.”

“If the building is not protected it will soon go to decay,” Morris fretted. “If visitors are permitted to do as they want in the interior it will soon be a disgrace…” Cycles of vandalism and repair followed one another from installation in 1906 into the 1930s, when, as part of the Works Progress Administration, the temple gate got a facelift. But to no avail. Within a few more years, Park Commissioner John B. Kelly was ready to throw up his hands. Kelly suggested the gate might just have to be “torn down.”

On the eve of the temple gate’s golden anniversary in Philadelphia, in May, 1955, the City installed scaffolding to carry out another cosmetic overhaul. But before the project got underway, the temple gate burned to the ground. The culprit, according to the Philadelphia Fire Department, wasn’t vandalism, but the “carelessly discarded cigarette” from the repair crew.

Who mourned the temple gate? Who had time to? Two years after the fire, Shofuso, another cultural treasure from Japan, found its way to Fairmount Park.

[Sources include: Christ, Carol. “The Sole Guardians of the Art Inheritance of Asia: Japan and China at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 8:3 (2000): 675-709; Historical Narrative of Shofuso. (.pdf); 1904: The World’s Fair. Missouri Historical Society; At The Fair: The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The Pike; Hoshi, Hajime, Handbook of Japan and Japanese exhibits at World’s fair, St. Louis, 1904; Tsen, Hsuan, Spectacles of Authenticity: The Emergence of Transnational Entertainments in Japan and America, 1880-1906. (Stanford University, 2011).]

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