By Mike Scott
Thirty-five years ago, on May 12, 1984, the ribbon was cut on the 1984 World’s Fair, one of the most ambitious, most optimistic and most imaginative — not to mention most financially disastrous — special events in the Crescent City’s modern history. But even if the 1984 World’s Fair was an undeniable financial flop, it’s not quite fair to declare it an outright failure.
As it turns out, there are a lot of things that the fair — formally the Louisiana World Exposition — did right. Many are still paying off today.
First and foremost, it opened up a previously blighted stretch of riverfront at the foot of Poydras Street, as well as giving a jump start to the revitalization of the Warehouse District. Off the fairgrounds, it prompted private investment, such as the redevelopment of the old Jax Brewery into a shopping mall.
In the process, it generated no small amount of pomp, circumstance and excitement in and about New Orleans, and at a time — amid the 1980s oil bust — in which the city truly needed it.
Most of all, though, the fair generated — and continues to generate — fond memories for countless New Orleanians who spent time exploring its myriad offerings.
Operating under the theme “World of Rivers,” and divided into six themed “neighborhoods” spread out over 84 (of course) acres, the fair among other things gave visitors a chance to view Vatican treasures, to check out an actual space shuttle, to ride what at the time was billed as North America’s biggest Ferris wheel, and sample the cultural of 23 countries.
For those who remember it fondly — and for those who might not remember it but are struck by that look that comes over the face of locals when discussing the gondola or the Wonderwall (or, oh, baby, dem mermaids, dawlin’) — here’s a look at the fair site then and now.
It’s a detailed attempt to place the fair in geographic context, illustrating what attractions were where on the fairgrounds and — with an assist from The Times-Picayune photo archives as well as Google Maps — a look at what occupies the site these three and a half decades later.
Let’s go (back) to the fair …
Given that the 1984 fair opened exactly 100 years after the city’s previous world’s fair — the 1884 Cotton Exposition — it was only fitting that homage be paid to that earlier event.
That was done with the Centennial Plaza, which, in addition to its central lagoon, featured seven similarly designed, brightly colored pavilions. When viewed from exactly the right spot — a cluster of palm trees just inside the fair’s Poydras Street entrance gate — they lined up to give the illusion of being one large building resembling the main hall at the century-earlier fair.
“Its flamboyant silhouette and classically inspired paraphernalia provide picturesque qualities that make the plaza an entertaining architectural landscape,” read a story in The Times-Picayune’s Dixie Roto supplement published shortly after the 1984 fair’s opening. “At night, the sense of theater is enhanced by computer-controlled lights that flash in sequence and illuminate the setting.”
Here’s a detailed rundown of what visitors could find on the plaza.
1. City Gate
One of the most photographed sites at the fair, this main entrance to the grounds was topped by a beautiful re-creation of a majestic brown pelican, the Louisiana state bird — which few people likely noticed. That’s because famously flanking both sides of the gate were two 25-foot-tall mermaids — the topless kind — that gained enormous exposure primarily because of what they exposed, enormously.
“The two voluptuous papier-mache figures adorn the Poydras Street entrance gates, along with a pelican, sea gods, alligators and other sea creatures,” noted a story in The Times-Picayune published just days before the fair’s opening. “But by far the most controversial are the mermaids, with their 20-foot tails, their hair 12 feet long and their breasts 4 feet wide with nipples the size of dinner plates.”
Crafted by veteran Mardi Gras float builder Joe Barth III, the mermaids prompted a number of calls from people upset by both their size and their sense of realism.
For their part, fair officials shrugged off any titillation the sculptures might have caused.
“We basically feel it’s as it should be,” fair spokeswoman Jeanne Nathan said then. “Women’s figures have been artistic and beautiful since the beginning of time. There’s no reason to represent the mermaids as anything else.”
Incidentally, while it attracted the most attention, the City Gate was one of two public entrances to the fair. The other, the so-called Bridge Gate (see No. 33), was located at the opposite end of what is today Convention Center Boulevard, in the shadow of the Crescent City Connection bridges (the east bank-bound span of which was still under construction as the fair opened).
2. “Crying Head” sculpture
Scattered through the fairgrounds were a number of pieces of art chosen as winners of an international water sculpture competition and all designed to complement the fair’s “World of Rivers” theme.
The first one that many fair-goers encountered would have been this one — a gigantic head, lying on its side and with water leaking from its eyes.
Designed by Claude and Francois-Xavier Lalanne, it’s one of the relics of the fair that locals can still appreciate. It resides today, albeit in a deteriorated and graffiti-covered form, on the Elk Place neutral ground, between Canal Street and Tulane Avenue.
3. Petroleum Pavilion
In an interesting bit of timing, the fair came along just as the local oil industry was bottoming out. If nothing else, though, it gave the oil industry — and the people who make a living from it — a stage from which to share their story.
To do that, various oil concerns teamed up to present the Petroleum Pavilion, adorned with a 17-story oil derrick that towered over Centennial Plaza. It was staffed by real oil industry workers who walked visitors step by step through the oil production process — including demonstrations by roughnecks wrenching on that centerpiece oil rig — and with an emphasis on the personal stories of the people behind the industry.
Every bit as much of a draw was a 50,000-gallon aquarium, stocked with fish from the Gulf, located beneath the derrick.
4. Centennial Gazebo
Located along the large lagoon at the center of the plaza, the Centennial Gazebo was an outdoor stage. Like the plaza itself, it served as an homage to the 1884 World’s Fair by serving up a steady diet of old-timey entertainment — barbershop quartets, ragtime music, vaudeville-style acts — for crowds of about 150 people at a time.
5. Antique Carousel
One of the tamer of the handful of rides that peppered the park landscape, it featured painted animals including ponies, giraffes, lions and reindeer. Unlike the various pavilions and exhibits, which were free with fair admission, the rides all cost extra. In this case, carousel tickets were $1.50, although children under 3 got to ride for free.
6. Centennial Plaza monorail station
This was one of three stations on the fair’s elevated monorail track, which carried six 10-car trains — moving at about 10 mph — on a circuitous, a 1 ½-mile route through five of the fair’s six “neighborhoods.” (Fulton Mall was the lone exception.) Free with the $15 price of admission to the fair, it even took passengers directly through the pavilions housing some of the attractions, such as the Petroleum Pavilion (No. 3) and the Great Hall.
Other stations on the monorail circuit were located in the Festival Park neighborhood (see No. 30) and the International Riverfront (No. 52).
7. America’s Electric Energy Exhibit
Operating under the theme “Rivers of Electricity,” this double-domed pavilion was built as a way to introduce, and explain, electric energy to people in a world much more reliant on petroleum-based fuels.
Visitors were memorably welcomed to the exhibit by a robot named Electro — one of the top six attractions at the fair, according to a pavilion official — and included such features as a “Tunnel of Progress,” video games, a presentation by the American Nuclear Society and a movie titled “It’s an Electric Life.”
8. Mississippi Aerial River Transit gondola station
One of the fair’s more prominent attractions — on the grounds and in locals’ memories — was the MART transit system, more commonly known as “the gondola.”
A towering skylift, it brought riders over the river to a West Bank station in enclosed cars suspended from a cable strung some 30 stories above the water’s surface. The cost: $3.50 per round trip.
Depending on whom you asked — or how strong the wind was — it was either a transcendent or downright harrowing experience.
Rick Raber, writing for The Times-Picayune, loved it, ranking it as the best ride at the fair. “A wonderful ride and well worth the price, the gondola provides a panoramic view of the fair and the city from 350 feet above the Mississippi River,” he wrote. “A round trip in one of the quiet Plexiglas bubbles is a peaceful break from the crowd with just the right amount of excitement.”
It was one of the few attractions to outlive the fair, albeit only briefly, as the goal was for it to be a permanent commuter transit system.
9. The Wonderwall
A fanciful centerpiece of the fair, the Wonderwall was a distinctive but difficult-to-describe visual cacophony of sculptures, scaffolding, architectural forms and landscaping that stretched a half-mile, nearly the entire length of the fairgrounds. Built into it at occasional intervals were stages, concessions shops, souvenir shops, restrooms and the like.
“Sensory overload is really what we’re into. This is not going to be boring,” said Charles Moore, the post-modernist pioneer who helped design the wall.
Other memorable descriptions of the Wonderwall: “a stationary Mardi Gras parade,” “an architectural tantrum” and — perhaps the most colorful — “the Great Wall of China, a la Harpo Marx.”
As whimsical as it was, the Wonderwall served a practical purpose: to camouflage high-tension powerlines that ran down Convention Center Boulevard — which was renamed from South Front Street several months before the fair opened — and which couldn’t be relocated or buried without incurring significant expense.
It’s not New Orleans without a parade, so fair officials held two parades daily, at 5 and 9 p.m., featuring at least two bands and six floats, marching groups and Disney’s horse-drawn calliope.
Starting at the bridge end of Convention Center Boulevard, it traveled roughly the length of the Wonderwall before diverting to the Fulton Street Mall for the return trip.
Centennial Plaza today
The site of Centennial Plaza is still a wide open space regularly visited by swarms of New Orleanians, but for a totally different reason. After the fair, the structures were razed and the land used for a parking lot commonly referred to as “the whale lot,” because of the undersea mural that adorns the side of the building adjacent to it.
Like many other fair features, the half-mile-long Wonderwall was disassembled and sold off after the fair closed. Various parts of it can be found at locations around town.
The monorail was reportedly sold to Zoo Miami, where it is still in operation today.
As for the gondola, it operated for a short time after the fair ended, but it was eventually closed and dismantled due to low ridership. One of the gondola baskets resides in front of Poeyfarre Market on Poeyfarre Street, a stone’s throw from the fair site.
FULTON STREET MALL
Before the fair, it was a little-regarded, garbage-strewn alley back running behind a line of overlooked warehouses fronting what today is Convention Center Boulevard. With the arrival of the fair, though, it received a $1 million transformation into a pedestrian mall — running from Lafayette to St. Joseph Street — to become what was billed as the fair’s late-night area, open until 2 a.m.
Here’s what was on the site.
10. The City of New Orleans’ ‘Rain’ Pavilion
It might not have been the biggest exhibit on the fairgrounds — that distinction goes the U.S. Pavilion (see No. 42) — but it did have some of the best real estate, being one of the first attractions encountered by fairgoers entering from the Poydras Street City Gate.
Fittingly themed “Rain,” and marked by an awning shaped like a red umbrella, it playfully satirized the city’s water-logged state, highlighted by a gallery of photographs of the city in the rain, water-themed sculptures, and a mural by “Vic ‘N’ Nat’ly” cartoonist Bunny Matthews focusing on the city’s drainage system.
Perhaps most practical was its gift shop, which specialized in umbrellas and rain ponchos — and which did reliably brisk business on rainy days.
11. French Market Seafood Warehouse
Located in a former marine-mill supply warehouse at the corner of Julia Street and Convention Center Boulevard, it dished out two New Orleans musts: seafood from the kitchen and music from legendary New Orleans trumpeter Al Hirt, who played regular gigs here when he was in town.
The building also housed the Hurricane Saloon, a Pat O’Brien’s-styled bar, also with regular live entertainment.
The Seafood Warehouse building is still there, now occupied by Mulate’s restaurant on Convention Center Boulevard.
12. Fulton Street bricks
As part of a program to raise money to relocate a 150-year-old Creole cottage into the Great Hall for its exhibit at the fair (See No. 22), the Preservation Resource Center sold personalized bricks, at $25 a pop, to be installed here on Fulton Street.
While some bellyached that the inscriptions were too small to be legible, and others complained they couldn’t find their brick among the sea of 7,500 others, the program was successful from a fundraising standpoint. It helped fund the rescue of the cottage that, in the path of the then-under-construction second span of the Crescent City Connection, had been slated for demolition and purchased from the Department of Transportation for a mere $25.
13. Pete Fountain’s Reunion Hall
Just as the name suggests, it was a music and dance hall headlined by you-know-who — who also appeared in ads for the World’s Fair — and featuring exclusively local musicians.
Located at the corner of St. Joseph and Fulton streets, it boasted a big-band stage and dance floor, seating for 825, a full menu and four bars.
“We even sell snowballs with just about any flavor kids of all ages can enjoy,” Fountain said at the time. “And we also have a souvenir and gift shop.”
14. The Vatican Pavilion
Everybody’s mama’s favorite stop on the fairgrounds, the Vatican Pavilion — sponsored by the Catholic Church, of course — wasn’t just one of the highlights of Fulton Street but of the entire 1984 World’s Fair.
Outside, the Vatican Pavilion boasted a distinctive domed exterior and unmissable yellow awnings. Inside was arrayed a vast collection of Vatican treasures including paintings, statues, tapestries and a replica of the Shroud of Turin.
The pavilion’s location set it off from the bustle of much of the rest of the fair. That turned out to be a good thing, helping transform it into a calming oasis in which visitors could escape the heat and take their time browsing the galleries, all while soothing liturgical music played.
Located right across St. Joseph Street from Pete Fountain’s Reunion Hall, it prompted Fountain to crack about how fitting it was for a fair in New Orleans to feature a bar on one corner and a church on the next.
The only downside: It was the only pavilion that cost an addition fee to visit, $5 a head, to help cover the cost of transporting the art to New Orleans.
Fulton Street locations not shown on map
- Sheila’s Tavern, an Australian watering hole
- A Belgian Waffle stand
- A Filipino restaurant
The Fulton Street Mall today
Fulton Street is still hopping, although in the year’s since the fair closed the action has shifted a couple of blocks toward Poydras Street, where it is a pedestrian mall lined by such establishments as Manning’s sports bar, Ernst Café, Fulton Alley bowling lanes and the Harrah’s Casino hotel.
Today, the site of the New Orleans Pavilion is occupied by the Omni Riverfront Hotel, which also houses the Fulton St. Bistro and Bar. The building that housed the Vatican Pavilion was dismantled; that spot is now occupied by the Hyatt Place hotel. The place where Pete Fountain’s Reunion Hall stood is a small surface parking lot.
THE GREAT HALL
Even before the World’s Fair came along, city leaders had long dreamed of building a convention center. In fact, it was pretty much going to happen one way or the other. But once talk of trying to stage a World’s Fair gained momentum, that served as a catalyst for convention center efforts, lending an even higher sense of urgency to the whole project.
That convention center would become the World Fair’s 300,000-square-foot Great Hall, a sprawling, mercifully air-conditioned indoor facility housing a sizeable chunk of the fair’s state and corporate exhibits, including the fondly remembered Louisiana exhibit, and through which the fair’s monorail traveled for a portion of its circuit.
Here’s what it looked like:
15. “Louisiana Journey”
The largest of the fair’s state exhibits, it included a 12-minute, Disney-style boat ride — dubbed “A Louisiana Journey” — through a channel constructed inside the Great Hall. Along the way, it set out to re-create and explain the Bayou State’s singular culture, simulating everything from swamps to plantation homes to the Mississippi River and, yes, even a hurricane. Fittingly, it closed out with a mini-Mardi Gras celebration.
Those who remember it probably also remember one less-than-pleasant feature: There was always a long line to ride it.
After the ride, visitors got a chance to view an exhibit containing the original Louisiana Purchase documents.
16. Cornet stage (aka World Stage)
The live entertainment epicenter of the Great Hall — which accommodated a standing-only crowd of about 300 — was a stage that took its name for the giant musical instrument that hung over it. In the mornings, it hosted WDSU broadcasts, after which it featured regular live musical and dance performances for the rest of the day.
17. WDSU telecommunications center
Nobody could accuse local NBC affiliate WDSU of not being attentive to the 1984 fair. The longtime local TV station didn’t just cover the fair. It built and maintained its own telecommunications center in the Great Hall, which it christened with a marathon-seven hour opening-day broadcast hosted by local news anchors Charles Zewe and Lynn Gansar (and “brought to you by Shoe Town!”)
That was just the start, though. For the fair’s run, WDSU ran a daily 30-minute program, “TV6 at the Fair,” with local broadcasting stalwarts Margaret Orr and Alec Gifford hosting on weekdays and Peggy Scott Laborde handling the duties on weekends. That’s right: They even aired a weekend edition, on both Saturdays and Sundays, prompting complaints from those upset that the broadcast pre-empted NBC News’ “Meet the Press.”
18. The Ochsner heart
The local healthcare giant sponsored one of the harder-to-miss exhibits in the Great Hall: a gigantic heart, which pulsated with light and included a heartbeat sound effect. Inside, it hosted an exhibit on heart surgery.
19. The Magic Room
One of the fair’s eight thrill rides, it was a motion simulator meant to re-create the Battle of New Orleans.
20. Great River Road Association exhibit
Consisting of a $1 million replica of a paddlewheeler “moored” at a lagoon inside the Great Hall, it was really 13 exhibits in one, covering the 11 American states and two Canadian provinces through which the Mississippi River runs.
Located near it was the Lynda Benglis water sculpture “Bronze Wave,” which, like “Crying Head” (see No. 2), was one of the winners of an international water sculpture competition intended to complement the fair’s watery theme. “Bronze Wave” has since been relocated to a City Park lagoon.
21. “I’ve Known Rivers”
Borrowing its name from a Langston Hughes poem, this exhibit focused on the black experience in America, starting with a trip through a replica slave ship. From there, visitors learned about the artistic, scientific and professional contributions of myriad black Americans, with a particular focus on Louisianians.
22. Preservation Resource Center exhibit
Financed by the sale of bricks inscribed with people’s names and installed on the Fulton Street Mall (see No. 12), the PRC exhibit consisted of a 150-year-old, three-room Creole cottage, relocated from Erato Street after being slated for demolition to make way for the second span of the Crescent City Connection bridge.
The house was furnished with mid-1800s furniture and was accented by a tidy little yard, set off by a picket fence, containing a landscape of native plants. The theme: “Living in New Orleans.”
23. “Artworks ’84”
As the name suggests, this exhibit was an art exhibit focusing on the work of some 75 contemporary Louisiana artists. In addition to a standing gallery of artworks, it featured an artist-in-residence program, which saw a rotating roster of local artists work in an on-site studio.
24. Mississippi Pavilion
The second-largest state exhibit of the fair, after Louisiana’s, it covered 20,000 square feet and included a rotating collection of artwork from Mississippi artists. The real attraction, though, was a slick multimedia presentation about the Magnolia State’s history and culture. “The slideshow here is one of the best at the fair,” read a 1984 story published in The Times-Picayune. “… There are special effects, good music and a dramatic narration by actor James Earl Jones, a native of the state.”
25. WRNO broadcast center
The local radio station, then operating with a classic-rock format, maintained a broadcasting center located in the Wonderwall, just outside the northwest corner of the Convention Center.
Great Hall attractions not shown on map
- Women in the Mainstream, an exhibit of women artists
- A number of religious exhibits, including from the Church of Christ, the Seventh-day Adventists, and the Greater New Orleans Federation of Churches
- Lipton Teas’ “Teas of the World” exhibit
- A National Park Services exhibit; and the film “How Water Won the West” (watch it above), narrated by actor Michael Landon and sponsored by the Bureau of Government Land Reclamation, the Bureau of Geological Survey and the Bureau of Fish and Wildlife.
The Great Hall today
The Great Hall, since renamed The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center — after the former mayor who was a driving force in its construction — continues to be an economic engine for the city. Undergoing repeated expansions over the years, it is a key factor in New Orleans repeatedly landing on various top 10 lists as one of the best U.S. cities in which to hold a convention.
A section of it is still referred to as the Great Hall.
After the fair, the Creole cottage that made up the PRC’s exhibit was moved to the 1500 block of Chippewa Street in the Lower Garden District, although it appears no longer to be there today.
If there’s anything people in Louisiana love, it’s a good festival. This World’s Fair neighborhood, gerrymandered at the rear of the fairgrounds, attempted to recreate some of the energy and flavor of the local festival scene.
Here’s what you could find there:
26. The Italian Village
Other countries contributed a pavilion. That wasn’t good enough for Italy. It also set up a whole village, built to resemble a traditional Italian piazza, lined with shops, restaurants, a small museum highlighting famous Louisianians of Italian descent, and featuring regular performances from jugglers, bands, Italian flag throwers and the like.
27. American Showcase Theater
Located inside an air-conditioned tent, it featured stadium seating for as many as 1,100 people and featured performances of all types — from the Circus D’Carlo to high school and university bands and dance teams — from noon to 11 p.m. daily.
28. Federal Fibre Milles Building
While Fulton Street Mall was billed as the fair’s primary late-night spot, many a drink was also had at the restored Federal Fibre Mills building, a then-80-year-old building that, once a rope factory, became home during the World’s Fair to the popular Miller Beer Garden — which served up German food and beer alongside traditional Oompah bands, Oktoberfest-style — as well as Jed’s Lookout, a rooftop nightclub.
Also inside the Federal Fibre Mills Building was the Louisiana Folklife Pavilion, which showcased the handiwork of local artisans and craftspeople, including live demonstrations.
29. Jazz and Gospel Tent
Re-creating the feel of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is no small task, but fair organizers gave it a valiant effort, with this venue featuring locally flavored music — jazz, blues, R&B, country, bluegrass, Latin, zydeco and the like — starting at 10 a.m. daily and continuing to 10 p.m. on weekdays and until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.
One of three stops on the fair’s winding monorail circuit, along with one in Centennial Plaza (see No. 6) and another on the International Riverfront (see No. 52).
31. Skylab and Rainbow rides
Among the fair’s rides, Skylab was ranked by The Times-Picayune as the third-best — behind the gondola and the monorail — and the best thrill ride.
“Sitting inside one of the 4-person cockpits is like being pinned inside a huge clothes dryer,” a reviewer wrote. “The view is of the sky and the pavement, everything else is a blur. As the fast-spinning wheel slowly tilts from horizontal to vertical, the rider is sure to ask himself: ‘Shouldn’t there be seatbelts in this thing?'”
The Rainbow, on the other hand, which is described as a row of seats on platform at the end of pendulum that swings back and forth for a while before doing a few complete loops, was described as “a mild spine-tickler.”
Each cost $2 to ride.
32. Bridge Gate
Thanks to the topless mermaids at the so-called City Gate, located on the Poydras Street end of Convention Center Boulevard (see No. 1), that one got most of the attention at the fair. But it was one of two public entrances to the fairgrounds. The other, the so-called Bridge Gate, was here, at the other end of Convention Center Boulevard, in the shadow of the Crescent City Connection bridges (the eastbank-bound span of which was still under construction as the fair opened).
Like the City Gate, the Bridge Gate was also adorned with fanciful sculptures, including oversized alligators and a trident-wielding likeness of King Neptune. There was a mermaid here, but she was more modest than the ones at the City Gate, thanks to her sweeping hair, which was strategically designed to provide upper-body coverage.
The Federal Fibre Mills building, at 1107 S. Peters St. in New Orleans, was once a rope factory. It became a center for nightlife during the 1984 World’s Fair. Photographed on March 29, 2019. (Photo by Mike Scott, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)
Festival Park today
After the fair, the Federal Fibre Mills building was converted into a condominium complex.
The space in front of the Federal Fibre Mills building, where the Jazz and Gospel Tent and the Festival Park monorail station stood, was cleared after the fair and was later converted to the serene Mississippi River Heritage Park.
The area once occupied by the Italian Village and American Showcase Theater is now home to the Hilton Garden Inn at 1001 South Peters St.
Neptune and one of his gators can still be viewed today less than a half-mile from the former location of their home at the Bridge Gate. They’re now at Tchoupitoulas and Henderson streets, serving as unmistakable signposts pointing the way to Mardi Gras World.
Sure, it sounds more like the name for a shopping mall than a real neighborhood, but the outdoor Bayou Plaza section of the fairgrounds housed two of the most popular attractions in the park: the Aquacade amphitheater, and the Kid’s Wash section of the Water Garden.
Here’s what was on the site:
33. The Aquacade
One of the fair’s bigger draws, it was a 3,500-seat outdoor amphitheater arranged around a pool in which six lively, 40-minute shows were staged daily — that’s 42 a week — that included diving acts, synchronized swimming (performed by 36 “Aquabelles”), singing, dancing, comedy and a “Splashdance” finale.
Best of all, the price was right: free, with park admission.
“A brief, not-so-thriller ride,” read a tepid Times-Picayune description of this $2 attraction. “Four giant arms, each holding seven cars, twirl up and down a 100-foot axis. The cars move at one speed, the arms at another. The ride does little more than muss your hair.”
35. Shoot the Chute
Another of the fair’s handful of thrill rides, this log flume cousin was located in the shadow of the Mississippi River Bridge. Riders were loaded into one of six boats — 16 passengers each — and then sent on a brief a circuit that culminated in a 60-foot drop and subsequent splash.
The ride lasted less than 3 minutes, but on a hot day it was worth the wait in line.
Sometime after the fair opened, a pair of kiddie rides were added to this area, one featuring mini dune buggies and the other featuring tiny sports cars, that drove around in a circle.
Like all the other rides, they were removed following the fair’s run.
36. Union Pacific Pavilion
This railroad-sponsored booth was eye-catching, with Union Pacific’s famed locomotive 8444 — the last steam engine made for the railroad — and its tender parked on a section of track out front.
Inside the 8,000-square-foot building, crowds followed a chrome rail guiding them through an exhibit focusing on the railroad’s history and culminating with a 7-minute film, “Rivers of Steel,” about how trains shaped the American continent.
The building was one of those removed after the fair ended, but engine 8444 is still in operation and is still dispatched for special events.
37. Chrysler Pavilion
Of all the pavilions at the fair, one of the easiest to identify from above was the Chrysler Pavilion. It was the five-sided building with a blue roof that served as a giant reproduction of Chrysler’s star logo.
The biggest of the corporate pavilions on the fairgrounds, at 20,000 square feet, it was also the first of the fair’s corporate pavilions to open, holding a ribbon cutting three days before opening day — as work crews rushed to finish their work elsewhere on the fairgrounds before the crowds arrived. (In many cases, they failed in that regard.)
Chrysler was also one of the few fair participants that chose to largely ignore the fair’s water theme. Instead, it focused on technology. The first of its two floors contained exhibits on such things as the role of robots and computers in auto manufacturing, and included working robots demonstrating their factory jobs. Upstairs, a 12-minute film covered the future of tech in the industry.
Outside, 1984 models of cars and trucks were on display. Crowds could also watch a puppet show and a magician.
38. Conergy House
A three-story house built by the Conergy company to demonstrate energy-efficient technology, it was something of a fairgrounds shrug.
After the fair, it became embroiled in a protracted legal fight over ownership of it — and so it sat, festering and vandalized in the shadow of the Crescent City Connection for years after the fair ended. It was eventually razed to make way for a Convention Center expansion.
39. Cajun Walk
An elevated, covered, lattice-lined boardwalk zigzagging along one side of the frolic-friendly Water Garden (see No. 40), the Cajun Walk re-created the feel of a South Louisiana wetland area while also providing a relatively quiet shortcut from Convention Center Boulevard to the International Riverfront area.
Above, ceiling fans stirred a comfortable breeze. Below, visitors could get even closer to nature thanks to a ground-level boardwalk lined with local native plants. Sponsored by the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service and the Metro Area Horticulture Committee, it included on-site hosts and hostesses who handed out informational pamphlets and answered visitors’ questions.
“Even the crickets have taken up residence, and hordes of dragon flies may be seen going about their daily activities,” host coordinator Betty Bagert told The Times-Picayune.
40. The Water Garden
Ground zero for cooling off, this free outdoor area featured a series of wading pools, sprinklers, a water maze — which challenged visitors to make it through without getting wet — and similar attractions to help them cool off.
By far the biggest hit among them: the “Kid Wash,” a kid-sized version of a car wash that was among the most buzz-generating things on the fairgrounds.
“This is it, the most popular item with children,” Water Garden lifeguard Cindy Kenney told The Times-Picayune. “Some children go through the wash more than 10 times. Some stay all day while their parents see the fair.”
41. The Giant Wheel
A 20-story Ferris wheel billed as the biggest in North America at the time, it provided a lovely view of the park.
For some, the Giant Wheel was a great spot to catch a breather from the bustle of the fair. For others, it was something more: New Orleans Saints linebacker Jim Kovach and wife Nora Harris exchanged wedding vows at the top of the wheel in June 1984.
Bayou Plaza today
The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center — the original building for which served as the fair’s Great Hall — hasn’t stopped growing since the fair ended. Its Halls D, E and F now occupy the entire Bayou Garden site (and then some).
Featuring the bulk of the fair’s 23 international pavilions, this section of the fairgrounds gave visitors a chance to take a trip around the world without leaving New Orleans. This section of the fair was also home to the Liggett & Myers Quality Seal Amphitheater, the fair’s ground zero for big-name entertainment.
Here’s what you would have found there:
42. United States Pavilion
The biggest single exhibit of the fair, it was a showcase for American industry highlighted by a large-screen 3-D presentation titled “Water — the Source of Life.”
43. Space Shuttle Enterprise
Really an extension of the U.S. exhibit, the space shuttle Enterprise — the first one built as part of NASA’s space shuttle program, although it never went into space — stood on display outside the U.S. Pavilion, an unmistakable symbol of America’s technological superiority.
In addition, NASA maintained a small pavilion just outside the shuttle, in the far end of the International Riverfront building, where visitors could watch live transmissions from space.
44. Army Corps of Engineers
The only exhibit located on the river itself, it was aboard the Kennedy, a converted dredge boat — formerly a paddlewheel steamer — upon which visitors could learn about the corps’ works, as encapsulated in the multimedia exhibit’s theme: “Managing the Might of the Mississippi.”
Every night for its entire run, the fair closed with a nightly 9-minute fireworks display, shot off from a barge on the river. It was set to music for those on the fair site, although it drew a nightly crowd on the West Bank, which was a prime spot to view the show for free.
46. River Cruises
Multiple sightseeing cruises — including aboard the Natchez, Creole Queen, Cotton Blossom, Voyageur and Bayou Jean Lafitte — departed the riverfront daily from at or near the World’s Fair site.
47. Sky Transpo
For visitors intimidated by the towering MART gondola (see No. 8), there was this much tamer aerial ski-lift that, for $1.75 (or $3 round-trip), carried riders from one end of the International Riverfront to the other.
48. Canada Pavilion
Like Canada itself, it was big if nothing else. After viewing a slideshow highlighting the country’s cultural connections with Louisiana, visitors were treated to a 20-minute IMAX film titled “A River’s Journey” and which, with its dazzling nature cinematography, was described by The Times-Picayune as “the undisputed highlight of the pavilion.”
49. South Korea Pavilion
In addition to a restaurant and a wealth of Korean art and artifacts, this 16,000-square-foot, two-story pavilion featured regular folk dancing performances — twice a day — that proved to be popular among fair-goers.
Outside of the pavilion, a 16th century ironclad turtle ship added even more color to the fairgrounds.
50. Mexico Pavilion
A relatively small exhibit, it featured little more than a modest display of replicas of Mexican artifacts and a gift shop containing real Mexican souvenirs. Also included was a Mexican restaurant.
51. France Pavilion
Visitors might have understandably expected an exhibit highlighting France’s deep connections to New Orleans. Instead, they got a somewhat forgettable one that told them more than they probably ever wanted to know about water system management.
52. Monorail station
One of three stops on the fair’s winding monorail circuit, along with one in Centennial Plaza (see No. 6) and another in Festival Park (No. 30).
53. European Economic Community
Before the European Union, there was the EEC, which made its 1984 World’s Fair home in this 5,000-square-foot space featuring an audio-visual tour of eight of its member countries: Belgium, Demark, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and West Germany.
Two other EEC countries, France and Italy, operated their own pavilions.
54. Caribbean and Italy pavilions
The Caribbean Village was multiple exhibits in one, a joint effort of the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Belize, and included a Caribbean restaurant and fruit bar. Announced just one day before the fair opened, it wasn’t ready for visitors until mid-summer. For its part, the Italy Pavilion was ready, but — especially when compared to the lively Italian Village in the Festival Park section of the fairgrounds (see No. 26) — it was fairly dense and dry stuff, focusing on such topics as waste and water management.
55. Australia Pavilion
In addition to Sheila’s Tavern on Fulton Street — which introduced New Orleans at large to the Foster’s beer oil can — fairgoers got a taste of Australia through this two-story exhibit, highlighted by a sort of natural history museum focusing on the unique animal life found Down Under.
56. Egypt and Liberia pavilions
The home to two smaller members of the International Riverfront, Egypt’s pavilion featured replica artifacts and a 35-minute film on Egyptian history; while Liberia’s pavilion boasted a $2.5 million exhibit of West African Art.
57. Japan Pavilion
A film, a restaurant and a gift shop were the centerpieces of Japan’s well-received exhibit, but they were just the tip of the iceberg. “There is technical and education information in abundance, but it’s not boring,” read a review in The Times-Picayune. “If visitors aren’t interested in Japanese river management and flood control, they can quickly walk through that section into a miniature rock garden, which has silk kimonos on exhibit against another wall.”
58. Philippines and Peru pavilions
The 5,500-square-foot exhibit for the Philippines, which announced it would establish a presence at the fair just three days before it opened, featured a small display about the country, a brief film, and a restaurant. Next to it was the Peru Pavilion, which, though small in size, was filled with information and exhibits highlighting the region’s rich past, including two preserved mummies and Incan jewelry.
59. Liggett & Myers Quality Seal Amphitheater
The fair’s biggest stage, it was an open-air clamshell-shaped theater emblazoned with a giant “Q” on the roof — for tobacco company Liggett & Myers’ Quality Seal sponsorship branding — and cooled by a breeze off the river, which flowed behind the stage.
Designed by Frank O. Gehry, the amphitheater could seat 5,500 and hosted regular headliners ranging from Bob Hope to Al Jarreau, the London Philharmonic to Willie Nelson, and the Vienna Boys Choir to Count Basie.
Although it cost $5 million to build, it was never intended to be a permanent structure; it was dismantled after the fair’s run ended on Nov. 11, 1984.
60. China Pavilion
At 44,000 square feet, China’s standalone exhibit was the biggest international pavilion on the fairgrounds. “Essentially, this is one big gift shop, albeit a nice one, with a little bit of education thrown in,” The Times-Picayune wrote of China’s exhibit. In addition to a cafeteria-style Chinese restaurant, it included exhibits on such things as Chinese fashions, jade and ivory, and a model of Chin Dynasty water collection processes.
Other International Riverfront attractions
- United Nations Pavilion;
- African Marketplace restaurant
- International Bazaar souvenir shop;
- European Village restaurant;
- and the VIP-only Club Rivers.
The International Riverfront today
After the fair ended, the building was expanded and converted into a shopping mall, which operates today as the Outlets at Riverfront.
This story was originally published in April 2019 by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.