“Texas is as much a melting pot as any place I know … All our similarities—and differences of language, culture, custom—have flowed along separate courses like rivers from a common lake of humanity.”
-First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, HemisFair '68 Opening Day Ceremony, April 6, 1968
Fifty-five years ago this spring, the world came to Texas for HemisFair ’68. The first official World's Fair held in the American Southwest, the six-month-long fiesta commemorated the 250th anniversary of the founding of San Antonio. Against the backdrop of one of the most dramatic and consequential periods in United States history, HemisFair celebrated the past, present, and possible future of cultural exchange and collaboration across the Western Hemisphere with the theme of “Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas.”
Congressman Henry B. González, honorary co-chairman of San Antonio Fair, Inc., heralded HemisFair as a symbol of hope and promise. “All the strengths that we have found in our diversity offer to all the world a bountiful vision,” he concluded in his opening day remarks, “one we believe all men will sooner or later come to share.” Others can debate the importance of HemisFair to the realization of that ideal, but the exposition’s significance to the hope and promise of San Antonio is undeniable. HemisFair transformed the Alamo City, reshaping downtown and the San Antonio skyline as well as creating a tourism industry that generates more than $17 billion annually today.
MEET ME IN SAN ANTONIO: HEMISFAIR ’68 ON FILM explores the historic exposition through the film cameras of Texans. Combining home movies with television news coverage and promotional films, the digital exhibition highlights the planning and construction of HemisFair’s sprawling fairgrounds, the lasting impact of connected urban renewal projects, the experiences of those who walked through the park gates, and its continuing legacy in San Antonio.
Begin your visit to HemisFair ’68 by checking out the park map below, which guides you through rare archival footage of 17 popular locations.
PLANNING AND CONSTRUCTION
HemisFair '68 was years in the making. Congressman González first suggested holding a trade fair in San Antonio to community leader William Sinkin in January 1962. San Antonio Fair, Inc., formed by December of that year with its members agreeing on a fair marking the 250th anniversary of the city's founding. The International Bureau of Expositions and the United States government formally sanctioned the event in 1965, paving the way for participation from foreign nations around the chosen theme of "Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas."
The following segments reference the planning of HemisFair. The first, from the 1966 government film Trails Through Texas, documents an official visit from First Lady Lady Bird Johnson to HemisFair Headquarters to preview the fairgrounds and its cultural entertainment. The second, from a 1967 television news documentary, surveys the park's design with local architect Allison Peery. Peery oversaw the exposition's development with architect O'Neil Ford.
With the necessary authorizations acquired and millions of dollars in funding secured, construction could finally begin. By opening day, HemisFair would encompass 38 pavilions, a three-building convention center complex, and various other exhibit spaces and entertainment venues. Not to mention shops and restaurants—and a 750-foot-tall tower.
The segments below show construction underway both on and off the 92-acre park site in 1967. The first, provided by UTSA Libraries Special Collections, captures groundbreaking ceremonies for the Woman's Pavilion and the Tower of the Americas. Of particular note is the stark difference in ceremonial shovels, with men using standard spades while women hold small, plastic pails and shovels made for children. The footage also includes views of San Antonio and the fairgrounds from the perspective of the ascending tower. The second, a silent home movie, documents the unusual construction of the Hilton Palacio del Rio across the street from the San Antonio Convention Center. In order to finish the 21-story, 500-room hotel in time for HemisFair, engineers at H.B. Zachry Company developed a construction plan where fully furnished 35-ton room modules were stacked and welded together. Working around the clock for 202 days, the hotel welcomed its first guests on April 1.
URBAN RENEWAL AND DISPLACEMENT
The organizers of HemisFair wanted its impact on San Antonio's tourism and hospitality industries to extend far beyond the exposition's six-month run. So they incorporated pending urban renewal projects into the park's development plan. Voters had already approved a $30-million bond package, including $10.5 million for a new convention center. Coordinating the complex's construction with HemisFair not only created necessary exhibition space but also allowed the city to purchase the entire parkland—as Winston Marshall, executive director of the San Antonio Urban Renewal office, explains in the segment below. Public and private investment across the 143-acre urban renewal site, including the 92-acre fairgrounds, would total $170 million (more than $1.4 billion in 2023 dollars).
This television news documentary segment also features San Antonio Mayor Walter McAllister, who reveals that these forward-looking projects, not HemisFair, determined the exposition's location. Now known as the Henry B. González Convention Center, the facility has undergone significant expansion since HemisFair opened and currently hosts more than 300 events every year.
Plans for the San Antonio Convention Center also included a quarter-mile extension of the San Antonio River Walk, bringing its banks to the doorstep of the complex with a new seven-foot-deep, concrete-bed channel. The $1.9-million expansion and beautification project rehabilitated the pedestrian street's maligned reputation. The place once considered dangerous enough for the military to ban personnel from visiting now became a popular off-site HemisFair attraction. Fairgoers could enjoy programming at the Arneson River Theater, tour the shops and restaurants of La Villita Historic Arts Village, and take river taxis from area hotels directly to an entrance gate adjacent to the Convention Center—features that would continue to attract visitors to San Antonio for decades to come. According to USA Today, the San Antonio River Walk is now the most popular tourist attraction in Texas.
The following silent home movie footage captures the scene along the San Antonio River Walk during HemisFair, including a live musical performance aboard a river taxi.
To realize its vision for HemisFair and a new convention center complex, San Antonio had to clear the residential neighborhoods then occupying the area. The city acquired the land with a $10 million federal grant, and financed the relocation of 390 displaced families with another $12.5 million federal grant. While park contractors renovated some existing structures to convert them into national pavilions in Las Plazas del Mundo, most of the buildings—including homes, schools, and businesses—were demolished.
The silent home movie below shows the project mid-development. Workers pass between the few remaining houses as they prepare the land for new construction, including on the Tower of the Americas.
AT THE FAIR
HemisFair '68 opened at 9 a.m. on April 6. General admission tickets were $2 for adults and $1 for children under 12. Inaugural ceremonies began with speeches from dignitaries in the Convention Center arena and concluded that evening with a performance of Giuseppe Verdi's opera Don Carlos in the adjacent performing arts theater. President Lyndon B. Johnson had expected to preside over the day's proceedings, as leaders of host nations typically do, but the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. two days prior kept him in Washington, DC. First Lady Lady Bird Johnson spoke in his stead. The President "would like to be standing here today," she remarked, "but the search for healing in our own America and for peace in the world are his first business." The flags representing each participating nation on display near the Institute of Texan Cultures flew at half mast in King's honor.
By closing day on October 6, more than six million people had walked through HemisFair's gates. The television spot above, provided by UTSA Libraries Special Collections, teases the fun fairgoers could expect. The following reels, on the other hand, combine silent home movie footage with television news coverage to envision the typical HemisFair experience, from the range of entertainment on offer to the colorful 1960s fashion worn by both visitors and staff. That's right; it's a HemisFair fit check.
HemisFair provided three alternate modes of transportation, each offering its own unique perspective of the fairgrounds. The Mini-Monorail ran along a one-and-a-half-mile elevated loop around the park. Riders in its open-air passenger cars traveled by major sites like the Tower of the Americas, Las Plazas del Mundo, the United States Pavilion, and Fiesta Island. For a bird's eye view of the park—or perhaps just a less crowded trek from one side to the other—visitors could board the Swiss Sky Ride, which soared 82 feet above the fairgrounds. Not a fan of heights? No problem. Fairgoers could also cut across the park by embarking on a Lagoon Cruise, which carried riders between a dock located on the northeast side of the Tower and another north of the United States Pavilion. Time your cruise correctly and you might enjoy a front-row seat to the Mercury Outboard Water Show.
The silent home movie footage below shows park visitors taking advantage of all three transportation options.
Twenty-five years after HemisFair, San Antonio released a fact sheet chronicling its creation and reflecting on its legacy. "HemisFair was one of the most cohesive forces in the city's history," the document praised, bringing together "every level of government and every social level of community in a cooperative effort to take a giant step for San Antonio." Economic benefits reportedly included $134 million in San Antonio visitor expenditures, $200 million in statewide retail spending, and the creation of 100,000 jobs over four years.
Long term, HemisFair established San Antonio's tourism infrastructure "overnight," the report continued. Development projects resulting from HemisFair turned the Alamo City into a sought-after travel and convention destination. Beyond the construction of multiple downtown venues and hotels, HemisFair precipitated improvements to prime shopping, restaurant, and nightlife districts like the San Antonio River Walk and La Villita Historic Arts Village. Many HemisFair structures also found new uses. The Mexico Pavilion became the Instituto Cultural de México, while the Confluence Theater later served as a federal courthouse.
Congressman González described the exposition's potential legacy in HemisFair '68, a 1967 television news documentary produced by San Antonio's WOAI-TV. Representing Texas' 20th congressional district from 1961 to 1999, he would see many of those predictions come true before his passing in 2000. The following reel illustrates the realization of Congressman González's vision for the future of San Antonio, juxtaposing his 1967 remarks with tourism films from 1975, 1984, and 1989 as well as a 1970s home movie of what is known today as the Hemisfair district.
Edited and produced by Caroline Frick and Elizabeth Hansen.
It features archival materials contributed to the award-winning Texas Film Round-Up program by the following individuals and organizations: Alamo Village, David Ayala, Leonard Bartos, John Crews, Austin Dennis, Christopher Dombrosky, Sue Ferguson, Amadtta Figueroa, Ramon Galindo, Randal Jeske, KPRC-TV, LBJ Library and Museum, Kim Ludeke, Kathryn Rhoads, Sandra Russell, Stephen Schaefer, Carolyn Smith, Sugar Land Heritage Foundation, Charles Tarvin, Venita Teal, Texas Film Commission, Emil Wesselsky, Tim White, and Heidi Wittenborn.
Special thanks to the University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections.
"60-second HemisFair spot." 1968. Film. San Antonio Fair, Inc., Records, UCMS-031/42. University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections. https://txarchives.org/utsa/finding_aids/00346.xml.
"Groundbreaking ceremonies for Woman's Pavilion." 1967. Film. San Antonio Fair, Inc., Records, UCMS-031/42. University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections. https://txarchives.org/utsa/finding_aids/00346.xml
"HemisFair '68 opening ceremony audio." 1968. Sound Recording. San Antonio Fair, Inc., Records, UCMS-031/20. University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections. https://digital.utsa.edu/digital/collection/p15125coll3/id/415/rec/1.
"HemisFair '68 US Pavilion soundtrack." 1968. Sound Recording. San Antonio Fair, Inc., Records, UCMS-031/19. University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections. https://digital.utsa.edu/digital/collection/p15125coll3/id/436/rec/22.
"HemisFair progress report #2, produced by Motion Picture Producers of Texas." Circa 1967. Film. San Antonio Fair, Inc., Records, UCMS-031/42. University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections. https://txarchives.org/utsa/finding_aids/00346.xml.
"Land area covered by HemisFair 1968." Circa 1962. Photograph. University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections. University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History. https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth66176/.
"The Legacy of HemisFair Fact Sheet -- 25th Anniversary." 1993. Text. University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections. University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History. https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth65765/.
"Sounds of HemisFair '68." 1968. Sound Recording. San Antonio Fair, Inc., Records, UCMS-031/19. University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections. https://digital.utsa.edu/digital/collection/p15125coll3/id/435/rec/21.
"Official souvenir HemisFair 1968 map." 1968. Text. University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections. University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History. https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth66514/.
Jones, Nancy Baker. “Woman's Pavilion." Handbook of Texas Online. https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/womans-pavilion.
Medina, Christopher. "HemisFair '68 Online." http://www.worldsfair68.info/.