Memphis Exposition Building

     ... another forgotten historic building


Several years ago we came across this illustration of the then unknown Memphis Exhibition Building.   After some preliminary research we found no information about the building or about its location.  Recently while exploring some vintage Daily Appeal Newspapers we came across several ads featuring the same illustration and learned that the building was actually located at Jefferson and 4th.  Then we came across a featured article announcing that the hall would be built in 1872 and we learned that it's major use was to host a yearly Memphis "Industrial Exposition".  Now more of the story can be filled in ...

Memphis Exposition Building




Click on small photos to enlarge them. 


From 1870 to 1888 almost every major city in the U.S. held an Industrial Exposition.  This was the time of great growth in the country and the spirit of new inventions was everywhere.  That's what the Industrial Expositions were all about.  To sponsor these expositions, city governments built huge, special buildings to house them.  And Memphis was no exception.  In 1872 the Memphis Daily Appeal ran a front page article announcing that the city would build a great Exposition Hall on Jefferson and the SW corner of 4th.  The main entrance would be on Jefferson, with additional entrances on 4th and on Court.

  1872 Announcement

The architect was James B. Cook, who had designed the new Gayoso Hotel after the first one burned.  He had also designed the original Shelby County Jail and several of the grand churches of the city.  The huge barn-like building was ready to open in short time and the first Industrial Exposition opened October 12, 1872.  It was a big success and new exhibitions would appear every year through 1888 - each one larger than the last.  When the building was dedicated in 1872, the reviews were very positive - "... a noble structure".  "The result ... is the erection of a palace so grand in its extent, so harmonious in its details, and in every way so adapted to the purpose for which it is intended, that the smile of quiet adoration is exchanged for the astonished gaze of admiration."    "... a true temple of glory".   "... unmixed admiration." 

James B. Cook  

The building 1872 Dedication 1872 1872 Ad Interior Interior

The complete 1872 dedication ceremony is posted above.  It completely describes the interior of the building.  (The file is quite large and may be slow to open).  The exhibition hall was expanded twice, adding a "Floral Hall with Glass Roof" and a "Power Hall" to accommodate large machinery.  Over time the expositions included displays from every conceivable business.  Artists displayed their works, musicians performed, and inventors and other businesses displayed their wares.  It was the perfect way to illustrate Memphis' important contributions to culture and technology in the 1800s.  And it was heavily advertised in the daily newspapers.


1873 Exhibit

1873 Exhibit Tribute to Cincinnati 1874 Exhibit 1878 Exhibit Review Location...

Although each exposition lasted only one month the Memphis Exposition Hall was used year-round.  After an exposition closed the hall was used for huge Masked Balls during Carnival, Christmas, and special occasions.  Seats were brought in and the great halls were then used for Vaudeville acts and theatre performances and circuses.  Conventions were held there.  And toward the end of its life, the hall found the perfect use - as a roller skating rink.

Masked Balls 1779      

Masked Balls


Circus Performances Vaudeville Races Conventions Roller Skating Rink


1872 Christmas

1876 Ball 1878 Skating Rink 1878 Skating 1880 Convention 1880 Ball 1884 Races

What happened to the Exposition Building?  

It isn't listed in the Memphis Directories after 1888, so this being Memphis, it's safe to say that it was demolished.  But typically, there are no details and to date, we have not been able to locate a single exterior photograph of  the building.

  1876 Directory 1878 1883 1886

Update May 12, 2021 . Lucius McGehee writes:  I found these items in the old Memphis Daily Appeal of 1887.  They document that our grand Exposition Building was pulled down over a few days that summer.  The Appeal calls it, inevitably, "that old eyesore".  Sic transit gloria mundi!  (Thus passes wordly glory)

Thank you Lucius for helping us complete our story on the old Exposition Burilding.


Vintage City Map showing the Exposition Building.

November 4, 2015:  Memphian Paul Roach has an eagle eye and spotted this detail of the Expo Building on an 1888 map of Memphis.  Thank you Paul.  You've helped us with information and photos in the past, and we are very grateful. 

1888 City Map  


Brief History of the Industrial Expositions ...


The first Exposition in the US was held in Cincinnati in 1838.  It was actually a Fair of the Ohio Mechanics Institute  held in the nation's first permanent exhibition hall.  It drew citizens from far and wide to look at industrial products.  Chicago might dispute who held the first expo.  but eighteen more of these fairs were held in Cincinnati before the Civil War.  After the war, the Ohio Mechanics Institute joined with the Chamber of Commerce to hold expositions to try to jumpstart their economy.  By 1870 they held their first GRAND Industrial Exposition in a new building especially designed for expos.

  Poster Cincinnati Bldg




Other cities began holding similar expos, and building similar Exposition Halls - some grander than others, but all were based on the same principal - they needed to be large and impressive and able to be built quickly.  Every branch of manufacture in the city and vicinity was to be included.  And the guidelines were specific - stating that they must advertise extensively to insure crowded halls.  Awards would encourage exhibitors to prepare extravagant displays.  Medals and diplomas were given for important machines capable of producing marketable items.   Their were often elaborate halls of arts and industries displaying everything from kitchen stoves to enormous horticultural arrangements.  The departments of natural history embraced all aspects of the natural world. 


New York       





The exhibition had to be housed in a building especially designed and built for this purpose.  One did not take an old building and convert it into these buildings.  The buildings were often constructed within a period of 6 to 8 months.





New Orleans



And then there were the international expositions, which generally began with London's famous Crystal Palace in 1851.  It's stated plan was "to illustrate British Industrial Development".  Since other nations were invited to participate.  they each hoped to outdo each other.  This exposition was so successful that other Expos followed in the major cities of Europe.  This, of course led to the establishment of "World Fairs"... and then after the success of the Industrial Expositions in the US, the State Fairs began as a way to let rural America participate.  With State Fairs, there was no longer a need for the yearly Industrial Expositions.

1751 London Crystal Palace  

Paris - Gran Palais        






The father of the Cincinnati expos was Alfred T. Goshorn.  His reputation at mounting successful expositions was so solid that it led to his appointment as director general of the International Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 - America's birthday celebration and the first "World's Fair in the US"  It was such a resounding success that Queen Victoria knighted Goshorn and the leaders of Europe presented him with numerous accolades.  After the close of the Philadelphia Exposition, many of the items were shipped to Washington to become a Smithsonian exhibit in its Arts and Industry building.  Today, several of the Philadelphia Centennial buildings are still in use.


A. T. Goshorn

Photos from the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial - the first World's Fair in the U.S.






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The "Historic-Memphis" website would like to acknowledge and thank the following for their contributions which helped make this website possible:  Memphis Public Library, Memphis University Library, Memphis Law Library, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Memphis Press Scimitar, Shelby County Register of Deeds, Memphis City Schools, Memphis Business Men's Club, Memphis Chamber of Commerce, Memphis City Park Commission, Memphis Film Commision, Carnival Memphis, Memphis Historical Railroad Page, Memphis Heritage Inc, Beale Street Historic District, Cobblestone Historic District, Memphis Historic Districts, Vance Lauderdale Family Archives, Tennessee State Archives, Library of Congress, Kemmons Wilson Family, Richard S. Brashier, Lee Askew, George Whitworth, Woody Savage and many individuals whose assistance is acknowledged on the pages of their contributions.  Special thanks to Memphis Realtor, Joe Spake, for giving us carte blanche access to his outstanding collection of contemporary Memphis photos.

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