HemisFair ’68: San Antonio’s International Debut
A global gathering put the city on a trajectory toward global prominence
By John Bloodsworth
Photography is Archival Photography
It was like dream come true for a city on the rise. On April 6, 1968, the region of San Antonio was propelled into the global spotlight as the world was welcomed to celebrate the 250th anniversary of San Antonio’s founding. HemisFair ’68 was the cosmic force that orbited the city into a new area of economic growth and positioned the once “sleepy burg” as a major force in the national convention and hospitality industry.
San Antonio had always been a gracious host to visiting dignitaries, travelers and those seeking the myriad pleasures that the city had to offer. Long before the Texas Revolution, Military Plaza teemed with Spanish soldiers, visitors and locals enjoying street entertainers and the culinary preparations of chili, beans and freshly made tortillas provided by the well known “Chili Queens.”
Looking back, in the mid-1800s, downtown plazas became a popular gathering place for medicine shows, entertainment, flea markets and other events that attracted visitors to the Alamo City. An international exposition was first held in 1888 on newly constructed fair grounds just east of downtown where the Freeman Coliseum and AT&T Center now stand.
Then, in 1891, a group of civic spirited women produced the first Battle of Flowers Parade attracting crowds of 10,000 to the inaugural event that was the birth of today’s Fiesta San Antonio.
Fast forward to 1958, when savvy downtown businessman and department store executive Jerome K. Harris proposed a fair to be held in 1968 to celebrate the city’s 250th anniversary and the shared cultural heritage of San Antonio and its Latin American neighbors. His idea gained the support of San Antonio Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez, and local businessmen William R. Sinkin, H. B. Zachry, and James Gaines. The planning would be a decade in the making.
A summer-long international exposition, known as HemisFair ’68, soon began to be supported by community and business leaders, and in December of 1962, the San Antonio Fair, Inc was formed to begin the tremendous planning, fundraising, designing and promotion of the massive event. In keeping with Harris’ original idea of celebrating shared cultural heritage, the theme of HemisFair ’68 was “The Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas.”
As president of the organization, Marshall Steves and his wife Pasty led a dedicated group of civic and community leaders in the quest to encourage foreign dignitaries and ambassadors to bring their countries to the celebration. “We moved into our new house in 1965 and 8,000 foreigners moved into our house with us,” recalled Patsy Steves as she delighted in providing international guests a taste of Texas hospitality.
The Steves were asked to join a group at the ranch of President and Ladybird Johnson in 1966 to welcome a contingent of Latin American ambassadors. That began a long and close friendship between Mrs. Steves and Mrs. Johnson. “We were two people just waiting to meet each other,” said Steves of the lasting friendship.
The next day the Mexican ambassadors came to the Steves’ home for Sunday brunch. And that evening the Johnsons, Steves and others took the Mexican visitors on a boat ride along the San Antonio River with The Chordsman, a local men’s singing group, serenading the entourage from the banks of the river.
“We ended up with the Mexican Pavilion that – 45 years later – is still making significant contributions to our community,” exclaimed Steves.
Interviewed by the Institute of Texan Cultures for their oral history collection in 1979, HemisFair’s director of exhibitor visitor relations Jack Newman spoke of the outpouring of service by community leaders in hosting parties for visiting guests, and how proud they were of their city.
“We could call Patsy and Marshall Steves at any time,” Newman said. “We’d get in a bind and we’d need to entertain a visiting dignitary or something; we’d call Patsy on the phone and she had freezers loaded with stuff and first thing you knew, you’re there entertaining in her home.”
“We’d move all the furnishings out of the playroom and set six tables for eight accommodating 48 guests,” said Steves. “The menu and the entertainment stayed the same, but the guests kept changing.”
“Not only that, they could push buttons for us,” Newman explained. “If we ran out of high level local people, the five or six who were executives of the fair that were hosts for visiting dignitaries, you could pick up the phone, they ‘d drop everything and come right down.”
On opening day, Patsy Steves was at Gate Three as husband Marshall Steves invited the world to see what San Antonio had created. “It was such a feeling of accomplishment,” said Steves.
Luis Torres, head of the Colombian Pavilion at HemisFair became fast friend of Patsy and Marshall Steves. On several occasions, typography on signage and promotional pieces were brought to the president of the fair’s attention with Colombia being misspelled with a “u” instead of “o”. Fair president Steves expressed his sincerest apologies to Torres and made every effort to have the spelling corrected. The jovial Torres replied, “Do not worry, my friend, we will change the spelling of our country.”
Each week of the fair, a country was saluted and recognition was given to that particular nation. Club Abrazo, a dining establishment on the fairgrounds, was the scene for many luncheons and dinners given to honor visiting dignitaries and guests.
Princess Grace and Prince Ranier arrived to the city on September 26 to attend Monaco Day at the fair. A luncheon was given in their honor and that evening a formal dinner and reception was held in the Anacacho Room of the St. Anthony Hotel. The royal couple were treated to a day at the Gallagher Ranch, a rambling Mexican-style ranch house where they were the guests of Amy Shelton McNutt.
FAIR AND FAIR ENOUGH
With great promise and optimistic expectation, HemisFair ’68 nonetheless felt the impact of the turbulent ‘60s. Just days before opening ceremonies in April of 1968, the assassination of Martin Luther King and racial unrest and riots throughout the U.S. left an indelible mark on the opening events and the nation. The assassination in June of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, and political turmoil surrounding the war in Vietnam and the Democratic National Convention adversely impacted attendance.
In spite of these obstacles, from April 6 to October 6 of 1968, some 6.3 million visitors came to celebrate the rich, cultural experience and hospitality that the fair offered. More than 30 countries, including Mexico, Spain, Japan, France, Italy, Portugal, West Germany and the United States had exhibit pavilions in the international area, named “Las Plazas del Mundo.”
And with those countries came dignitaries, pavilion hosts, volunteers and international guests that experienced the hospitality and vitality that HemisFair ’68 imbued. It is important to note that commerce played a large role in the fair, with corporate pavilions created by AT&T, IBM, Kodak and dozens more enthralled visitors with a look at the powerful companies’ visions of the future.
In the warm spring and summer of the fair, there was something for everyone and certainly, for children of all ages. There were rides, a Ferris wheel, riverboat tours, puppet shows and even, a Monorail that represented Space Age transportation of the future.
With this magnificent citywide effort, San Antonio achieved an astonishing metamorphosis with an internationally recognized hospitality industry, thriving medical and bio-technology centers, a spectacular Convention Center, expanded River Walk, two major theme parks and the number one tourist destination in the state of Texas.
HemisFair Park, the original site of the 1968 fair is about to become the newest star in the city’s crowning achievements. Andres Andujar, CEO of the HemisFair Park Redevelopment Corporation, envisions that the redevelopment of HemisFair “will have a definite effect on the transformation of San Antonio.”
Plans call for the reestablishment of a residential neighborhood to honor the community that once was there. Mixed-use development will also expand the green space and open areas that were made possible by the creation of HemisFair ’68.
“The bottom line is simple – when we think about great cities, they have great downtowns,” said Andujar. “And great downtowns have great urban parks.”
With today’s visionaries taking the reins from those that drove past success, HemisFair will continue to celebrate San Antonio’s diverse culture while welcoming the world to the party.