Regular readers of my scribblings will be aware of my fascination with the Glasgow Empire Exhibition of 1938, especially that twilight celebration of British imperialism's surviving structures and ephemera. Well, that interest now extends to the United States, where I recently completed a travelling loop of what unkind Americans call the 'flyover states', and more charitable souls the Mid-West. There, I tracked down – among other things – relics of the 1893 and 1933 Chicago World's Fairs.
My first stop was Milwaukee, a culturally vibrant city an hour north of Chicago by Amtrak. Near my downtown hotel was the Pabst Mansion, a Gilded Age residence built by the German-born Captain Frederick Pabst, who at one point ran the world's biggest brewing company. Visitors enter the mansion via an odd-looking conservatory, which a 'docent' explained had started life at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 (also known as the Chicago World's Fair), which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus's 'discovery' of the New World. Later, the 'Pabst Pavilion' was dismantled and rebuilt in Milwaukee. Later still, a cross and stained-glass windows were added by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which occupied the mansion for several decades.
With my appetite whetted for similar discoveries, I left Milwaukee for Bismarck, North Dakota, another city with strong German influences. The purpose of this detour was the completion of a bucket list 30 years in the making – visiting every US state. This was handy, for I was asked several times in the snow-covered capital of North Dakota what on earth I was doing there in the middle of February, and I had a ready reply. Despite the snow, Bismarck was at least above freezing. Chicago had been -15 centigrade, while Milwaukee had been a more tolerable -5. Presidents' Day (such a dumb excuse for a public holiday) made visiting the Art Deco state capitol impossible, though a local historian cheerfully unlocked a couple of other attractions purely for my benefit. No payment required.
I was in the United States in the midst of the Democratic primaries, which had everyone in a political mood. In Milwaukee, an Uber driver had been entertainingly blunt: 'Brexit!' she exclaimed on hearing where I was from. 'What the f***?' Oklahoma, my next stop, was, like Wisconsin and North Dakota, another resolutely 'red' (i.e. Republican) state. I'd wanted to visit since seeing the eponymous musical (several times) as a kid, and while I didn't see any flowers on the prairies or June bugs zoom, I did spend time in the state's two largest cities, Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
Although I'd driven through the Oklahoma panhandle in the summer of 2017, it felt like a bit of a cheat, so this visit also served to top up my US state bucket list. I like to explore new cities on foot, but in Oklahoma City this was impractical. The disappointing state capitol building and the more engaging history center were right next to one another but had no pedestrian link. Faced with a half-hour detour or the absurdity of summoning an Uber, I waited for a pause in the traffic and darted across a narrow section of freeway. Almost everywhere else in the city I was the only pedestrian, asides from the waifs and strays who inhabit the outskirts of most large US cities.
The Greyhound from Oklahoma City to Tulsa also served as a reminder of the other Americas that exist, those populated by poorly-paid Latinos, hobos and folk with obvious mental health issues; the 40-45% of Americans who don't vote in presidential elections and have no opinion on whether Bernie is better than Elizabeth. Tulsa brought to mind a Gene Pitney song I remembered hearing on a cassette tape owned by my mother; it was also one of the most architecturally rich and diverse cities I've ever visited. Not just the Art Deco it is (rightly) famed for, but some gothic and a few mid-century gems – I had dinner one evening at 'The Vault', formerly a 1950s drive-thru bank.
Tulsa boomed during the 1920s and clearly took delight in advertising its oil wealth with some of the most ornate Art Deco buildings constructed anywhere in the northern hemisphere. Even the Methodists weren't immune, constructing an extraordinary Art Deco church on Boston Avenue. A few miles south, I also wandered around the eccentric modernist campus of Oral Roberts University, complete with giant praying hands and a 'prayer tower' which looked as though it was about to take off. My American friends – who follow my travels via Instagram – were intrigued to discover that Tulsa was not the cultural backwater they had assumed it to be.
En route to Springfield, Illinois, I had two hours to kill in St Louis, Missouri, a city I last visited during the 2016 presidential election. There I caught a glimpse of museum buildings left over from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, informally known as the 1904 St Louis World's Fair and which introduced ice cream cones to the world. Then it was another Amtrak – a service I find more comfortable and reliable than most Americans – to Springfield, another state capital and second-tier Mid-Western city generally ignored by tourists.
The Illinois capital is ostentatiously proud of its associations with Abraham Lincoln who, although not from the city, forged his early legal and political careers there. Following his assassination in Washington DC, Mrs Lincoln insisted that her husband's body be laid to rest at Oak Ridge Cemetery to the north of Springfield. The tomb and memorial is very fine, although there were only a smattering of visitors when I arrived shortly before it closed. A marble sarcophagus sits inside, above which is the legend: 'Now he belongs to the ages…'.
With a day in Chicago before my overnight flight home, I was able to track down remnants of the 1893 and 1933 World's Fairs. On the south side of the city (where, mercifully, no trouble began), I visited the sprawling Museum of Science & Industry, the main survivor from the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Also in Jackson Park were two more relics, a Japanese garden (vandalised after the Second World War but later restored) and the 'Statue of the Republic', a replica of that associated with both World's Fairs. The Balbo Monument, in Soldier Field back towards downtown Chicago, was the final and most intriguing surviving trace. Consisting of a 2,000-year-old Roman column, this was gifted to the city by Benito Mussolini in honour of the trans-Atlantic flight led by Italo Balbo to the 'Century of Progress' World's Fair in 1933. This slice of fascist Italy, however, seems to go unnoticed by the park's many cyclists and joggers.
The 1933 World's Fair brings us neatly back to Glasgow in 1938. Not only was its architectural style – like Tulsa, Art Deco – a strong influence on Thomas S Tait et al as they planned Bellahouston Park, but in 1933 Chicago was visited by the Royal Scot steam locomotive, which was shipped to Canada and then toured North America to publicise the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) – including a period as an exhibit at the 1933 World's Fair. I've since sourced an LMS booklet entitled The Triumph of the Royal Scot
, which documented the tour. eBay is full of such paraphernalia for geeks like me.