Artist’s conceptions of the Freedom Fair show a collection of fanciful structures, including three large buildings that, from the air, spell out “USA.” Next to that is an amusement park, complete with roller coaster.
The Freedom Fair — designed by New York’s Gardner Display with contributions from the Byrne Organization, an architecture firm — would include 110,000 square feet of space for international historical, cultural and economic exhibits.
“In addition,” read a brochure distributed to drum up interest, “it will provide unique restaurant facilities serving native foods from all over the world. It will also contain a large Festival Court for the staging of programs of native music, pageants and other forms of colorful entertainment expressive of the history, art and culture of the participating cultures.”
Carter T. Barron, the movie executive who headed the sesquicentennial commission, promised that the fair would not have a “honky-tonk” atmosphere, but be a “veritable sea of light, symphony, music and color.”
The U.S. portion of the fair would be reminiscent of the Freedom Train that had toured the country in 1947, full of historic documents. Many of the buildings would be temporary, and in the two-year life of the fair, it was expected to attract 15 million visitors.
That was the dream, but the reality was more troublesome. The preferred site — at the end of East Capitol Street — was not ideal. The District had been planning to build a bridge there. The city’s recreation department lamented losing baseball and softball fields.
And the Public Housing Authority worried about relocating hundreds of African American federal workers who had moved to trailers and residence halls there during World War II. Where would those people go?
Despite these complications, the Fine Arts Commission approved the design and in December 1949, test borings were begun at the East Capitol Street site.
But the real problem was paying for the Freedom Fair, which was estimated to cost as much as $17 million.
Congress dithered about earmarking funds for the project, with Rep. John Taber (R-N.Y.) grousing, “The whole thing is a mess.” He insisted that freedom would be better served by balancing the federal budget.
Eventually, $3 million was approved. The balance would be made up by the corporations and countries that would pay to exhibit. A calculation by Gardner Display — a self-serving calculation, Answer Man ventures — forecast a profit of $2 million for the nation.
This all turned out to be what the Evening Star newspaper later dubbed “Alice-in-Wonderland financial wizardry.” The numbers just didn’t add up.
Foreign governments expressed little interest in forking over $20 a square foot for exhibit space. It would look bad, some diplomats said, for countries receiving Marshall Plan funds to buy into the Freedom Fair.
Things weren’t helped when a shareholder in the corporation that had been formed to lease Freedom Fair space was accused by a Maryland contractor of requesting a 10 percent kickback for the honor of constructing the USA buildings.
The Freedom Fair was faltering. Organizers made a last-ditch effort to spin off a nonprofit entity to oversee its construction and operation, but U.S. Attorney General J. Howard McGrath determined that that would not be legal.
In May 1950, the Freedom Fair was killed. Sesquicentennial organizers voted to go with a more modest plan that included performances of the Paul Green play “Faith of Our Fathers” at the Sesquicentennial Amphitheatre, concerts and pageants around town, commemorative coins and stamps, and art exhibits at the Corcoran and the National Gallery of Art.
The USA buildings of the Freedom Fair may have been DOA, but the fallout dragged on. The Byrne Organization sued to be reimbursed for its design work.
In 1961, the architects lost their case.
“Plaintiffs, admittedly, began as volunteers with the hope of obtaining a highly lucrative contract,” wrote the judges in the U.S. Court of Claims. “When this contract did not materialize, they sought by way of a lawsuit to reduce the expenses they had incurred in attempting to induce the contract. The court as guardian of the public treasury does not turn a deaf ear to the demands of the plaintiffs but determines they are unwarranted.”
Freedom’s just another word for something left to lose.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.