History of Memorial Hall and the 1876 Centennial

Memorial Hall

Designed in the magnificent Beaux Arts style, Memorial Hall served as the Art Gallery at the Centennial and was designed to serve as a permanent museum of art for the city of Philadelphia. During the Centennial, 3,256 paintings and drawings, 627 works of sculpture, 431 works of applied art and nearly 3,000 groups of photographs from 20 nations were exhibited. On display was Peter Rothermel’s huge 32 x 16 ¾ -foot painting Battle of Gettysburg, which can now be seen at The State Museum in Harrisburg. Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins displayed several works of art in Memorial Hall, including the paintings The Chess Players (now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Portrait of Professor Benjamin Howard Rand, and the watercolor Baseball Players Practicing. But the painting that he called, “far better than anything I have ever done” was rejected as being “too violent and bloody” and was relegated to be displayed among the Army medical exhibits. That painting, The Gross Clinic, would ignite a firestorm in Philadelphia in late 2006, as civic leaders called it “Philadelphia’s greatest painting” and fought to keep it from being sold to a museum outside the city.

Architectural Facts

  • Memorial Hall was designed by architect Herman J. Schwarzmann and built by contractor Richard J. Dobbins. Construction began on July 6, 1874 and was completed by opening day of the Centennial, May 10, 1876.
  • One of America’s first examples of Beaux-Arts architecture, Memorial Hall was constructed to be the Art Gallery of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. This National Historic Landmark offers three times more space for exciting exhibits.
  • Memorial Hall is 365 feet long, 210 feet in width, and 59 feet tall, with a 150-foot dome sitting on top. Please Touch occupies all 156,000 square feet of Memorial Hall.
  • The exterior facade of Memorial Hall is granite and the interior is cast iron and stone. The interior is finished with finely embellished, ornate plasterwork.
  • The top of the steel dome is adorned with a 23-foot tall statue of Columbia holding the laurel branch of glory. At the base of the dome sit four figures symbolizing Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Navigation.
  • The massive bronze statues in front of Memorial Hall are “Pegasus Tamed by the Muses Erato and Calliope,” designed by Vincent Pilz for the facade of the Imperial Opera House in Vienna and purchased by Philadelphian Robert H. Gratz.

The Centennial of 1876

Officially known as the “International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine,” the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was the first major world’s fair to be held in the United States. The Centennial celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and showcased the United States as a rapidly developing industrial power with abundant natural resources. Nearly 10 million people visited the Centennial from May 10 to November 10, 1876, a staggering feat of cultural tourism when one considers the U.S. population totaled just 40 million at the time.

The Centennial was the product of ten years of planning and hard work, and the results were astonishing. Some 30,000 exhibits filled over 240 massive exhibit halls spread over 284 acres in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. Nearly every nation in the world exhibited at the fair.

Presiding at the opening ceremonies on May 10, 1876 were President Ulysses S. Grant, his cabinet, the Supreme Court, both houses of Congress, Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil and his Empress, the governors of Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, and more than 100,000 spectators.

Exhibits were classified into seven departments: mining and metallurgy, manufactures, education and science, machinery, agriculture, art, and horticulture. These departments were housed in the five major buildings of the Exhibition. The Main Exhibition Building contained the exhibits relating to manufactures, mining and metallurgy, and science and education, while each of the other four departments had its own building.

Centennial Exhibition Facts & Figures

  • The Centennial Exhibition opened May 10, 1876 and closed November 10, 1876
  • Attendance: 9,789,392
  • Attendance fee: 50 cents (the average daily salary for the American worker was $1.21)
  • The entire exhibition covered 284 acres.
  • More than 70 acres of Fairmount Park were covered with buildings.
  • There were 106 visitor entrance gates and 43 exit gates.
  • The Centennial had 60,000 exhibitors from 37 foreign countries and the United States.
  • The $8.5 million it cost to produce the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 is equal to $141,772,356 today.
  • It cost $1.5 million to build Memorial Hall.

Inside Memorial Hall

3,256 paintings and drawings, 627 works of sculpture, 431 works of applied art and nearly 3,000 groups of photographs from 20 nations were exhibited.

For more information on Centennial Tours of Memorial Hall, click here.


There was a building on site where women ran a model first kindergarten that people could observe. The education method was based on the ideas of Friedrich Froebel, a German educationalist considered the “father of the kindergarten.” His ideas maintained that when children engaged with the world, they gained understanding. He also emphasized learning through play. Froebel developed a series of “gifts” (play materials) and “occupations” (activities). The gifts included blocks that architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother bought at the Exhibition and took home for her son. He later placed great influence on these blocks in his designs and theories.

Charles Hires, a Philadelphia pharmacist, introduced his beverage, root beer, at the Centennial. Still in production today, Hires Root Beer is the oldest, continuously marketed soft drink in the United States.

A six-bed hospital on site was run by Dr. William Pepper, who later founded the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone during the Exhibition.

The banana was first introduced to the U.S. at the 1876 Centennial, where it was wrapped in foil and sold as an exotic treat for a dime.

Served at the Exhibition, “Centennial Cake” survives today as shoofly pie.

Other Centennial Landmarks in Fairmount Park

In 1876, Wilhelm Wolff’s statue The Dying Lioness was located at the southeast corner pavilion of Memorial Hall. Today, it greets visitors at the entrance to the Philadelphia Zoo.

Ohio House, a 3,325-square-foot building on one acre at States Drive and Belmont Avenue, is the only state building left from the Centennial. The exterior stonework features 21 different Ohio sandstones with inscriptions indicating the source quarries. It was redeveloped in 2007 as “The Centennial Café.”

The Total Abstinence Fountain, funded by the Catholic Total Abstinence Union of America and dedicated on July 4, 1876, still stands between Memorial Hall and the Mann Center for the Performing Arts. It portrays Moses (the central figure), prominent Catholic-Americans Charles Carroll and Archbishop John Carroll, Irish temperance proponent Father Theobold Mathew, and Commodore John Barry, “Father of the American Navy.”

After the Fair

After a six month run, the Expo closed its doors, having played host to nearly 10 million visitors. On November 10, 1876, President Grant returned to Fairmount Park to close the great fair. Most of the buildings were removed from Fairmount Park and the exhibits they had held would go on to form the cornerstones of the collections of some of the nation’s top museums. The Smithsonian Institution acquired the exhibits of 34 countries and a number of U.S. states, which were shipped to Washington, D.C., in more than 40 freight cars. Congress provided a new home for the exhibits, first, by transferring the Washington Armory to the Smithsonian, which used the huge building to store the exhibits, then by constructing the National Museum.

On May 10, 1877, exactly one year after the inauguration of the Centennial Exposition, Memorial Hall reopened as the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art (later renamed the Philadelphia Museum of Art). The museum was chartered with a goal of establishing “a Museum of Art, in all its branches and technical application, and with a special view to the development of the art and textile industries of the state.” By the turn of the century, however, it became increasingly apparent that larger quarters were needed to house the growing collections, and the museum moved to its new building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 1928.

Memorial Hall remained open for smaller exhibits and was used for collections storage until 1956, when it was converted to a recreation center and headquarters for Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Commission. In 1961, a basketball court was inserted in the west gallery, and locker rooms were built on the ground floor. In 1962, the east gallery was converted into an indoor swimming pool. By 2000, the building’s deteriorating condition led the Park Commission to seek a new tenant to restore Memorial Hall. Please Touch Museum signed an 80-year lease on February 14, 2005.

The Centennial Model

During renovations, one of Philadelphia’s lost treasures has been protected in a temporary, climate-controlled room on the ground floor. In the mid 1880s, John Baird, former member of the Centennial Board of Finance started the ambitious project to record the history of the Centennial in miniature. Months of archival research and preparatory drafting led to the hiring of highly skilled mechanics to construct, carve and paint the buildings and other objects depicted in 1 to 192 scale. It was first exhibited in 1889 at the Spring Garden Institute and later gifted by Baird to the City of Philadelphia. It was on display in City Hall from 1890-1894 and put in storage until 1901. That year, it was moved to the basement of Memorial Hall, where it sits today. The Centennial Model is the centerpiece of what will become the Centennial Experience at Please Touch Museum. Appropriate educational activities and exhibits featuring original artifacts, reproductions, stories and “touchable” objects will surround the model in its room, providing visitors with a complete Centennial experience.

The Future

In 2005, a coalition of organizations in Fairmount Park created a master plan for the future of the fairgrounds, dubbed the “Centennial District.” The Fairmount Park Commission, Fairmount Park Conservancy, Please Touch Museum, Philadelphia Zoo and Mann Center for the Performing Arts devised a 20-year plan to turn the area into a cultural and historical attraction. The Centennial District Master Plan envisions the transformation and revitalization of the area. It includes proposals for land use, transportation, signage and community development. It is an ambitious, multi-faceted, 20-year plan with an end date of 2026 – targeted to coincide with the 250th anniversary of American Independence. The Master Plan also examines the connections from the Centennial District to the surrounding neighborhoods and to the greater Philadelphia region.

Centennial Bibliography