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Viva HemisFair: ITC looks back 50 years at the event that launched modern San Antonio

Apr 23, 2018

(SAN ANTONIO) – April 2018 marks the launch of San Antonio’s modern era and the city most San Antonians recognize today. On April 6, 1968, San Antonio opened HemisFair ’68, a World’s Fair that redefined the city’s landscape.

The UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures looks back at the event in “Viva HemisFair!: 50 Years of HemisFair ’68 Memories” an exhibit looking back at the event, the social climate of the 1960s, the steps required to bring the fair to San Antonio, experiences on the fairgrounds, and the events the fair set in motion.

With a comprehensive timeline, the exhibit demonstrates how the 1960s were a tumultuous era of social change, particularly with the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. The year HemisFair ’68 opened especially stands out for the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., school walkouts by Mexican-American students seeking equal educational opportunities, and diminishing public support for the Vietnam War.

Even under such adverse conditions, San Antonians were determined to celebrate the city’s 250th anniversary in spectacular fashion and ideas coalesced to host a World’s Fair in San Antonio. The exhibit describes the processes of securing funding at the local, state, federal and international levels, and the urban renewal plan that created the 92-acre HemisFair grounds next to downtown.

A selection of personal items and historical images documents the “Polish Quarter” neighborhood demolished in the name of economic revitalization. Hundreds of families were displaced, businesses closed, and few structures of historical significance survived.

The fair required and received participation from dozens of nations and industrial giants. Historic images and artifacts show then cutting-edge technologies from IBM, Southwestern Bell, RCA, Eastman Kodak and others.

Participation from other nations included performers such as the lauded Voladores de Papantla, a tribe of indigenous peoples, “Flying Indians,” from Mexico, who performed a rain ritual involving their descent from a tower by ropes tied around their ankles. In addition to the cultural entertainment, fair-goers could use Swiss-style gondolas, a mini-monorail, or a ferry system to make their way around the fair’s 92 acres.

HemisFair included a broad range of uniforms for various pavilions and positions, and three are on display: the Women’s Pavilion, the Institute of Texan Cultures and the United States Pavilion. Photos show other designs used at the fair, and some of the original concept sketches. Some the era’s top design houses contributed uniforms, with patterns and colors that have come to define 1960s fashion.

Though in the years since HemisFair, parts of the fairgrounds have been demolished, dismantled, or fallen into disrepair, other parts of HemisFair were intended to be permanent structures and brought San Antonio major boons in tourism and development, including the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center for hosting large events; the Convention Center Arena, which would become home to the San Antonio Spurs; the Lila Cockrell Theater for performance arts; the Tower of the Americas, which redefined the San Antonio skyline; and the Texas Pavilion, which houses the Institute of Texan Cultures and its exhibits of the ethnic groups that contributed to the state’s founding, its character, and its prosperity.

The exhibit closes with two walls inviting guests to leave their thoughts on how they remember HemisFair, and what guests hope to see on the fairgrounds in another 50 years.

Viva HemisFair! remains open through December 2018.

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