Historic Detroit

International Exposition Building

It’s was modeled off of grand European palaces that have stood for centuries, but Detroit’s grand International Exposition Building would stand for only six years — but that was always the plan.

With the 19th century winding to a close, Detroit had grown to more than 205,000 people — nearly doubling in size in 10 years. City leaders were eager to show the world that Detroit was a booming, modern town, so they combined an industrial expo with an agricultural fair and came up with the Detroit International Exposition. The grounds were located where the Rouge and Detroit rivers meet, not far from Fort Wayne in the Delray neighborhood. The expo opened to the public on Sept. 17, 1889.

This was the pre-motor Motor City, so the expo showed off Detroit’s big industries of the day, such as stoves, soap, seeds and more. Coming just a year after Detroit’s first art museum opened, the expo also showed off a painting gallery with 300 artworks. The fair was so huge, Harpers Weekly wrote in its Aug. 17, 1889, issue ahead of the expo, that the only person capable of seeing everything in a day would be a “professional pedestrian.”

At the heart of the grounds was this incredible, palace-like main building designed by Louis Kamper of Scott, Kamper & Scott. Despite its grandness, the building was designed to be only a temporary structure, lasting only for the expo’s run, so it was made entirely of wood. It boasted a tower with unparalleled views, and offered some 200,000 square feet of exhibition space. The article in Harpers Weekly declared that it was “the largest building in the world erected exclusively for fair and exposition purposes.”

More than 300,000 people turned out for the inaugural expo, so it was decided to make it an annual event.

After a couple of years, however, attendance dropped, so the land was sold. The Solvay Process Co., which produced soda ash used in glassmaking, bought the grounds and cleared the site in 1895. Today, the area is part of the heavily industrialized Zug Island area.