On Tuesday, 19 May 1964, The New York Times reported that “the largest assemblage of Mormon officials to gather in the East since the Mormons went west in 1846 convened yesterday morning to dedicate the Mormon Pavilion”1 at the New York World’s Fair.
Seven of the fifteen members of the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve were present for the dedication of the edifice and grounds that would provide, as President David O. McKay described, “one of the most unique and effective missionary efforts in [the Church’s] history.”2
The impact of that pavilion was felt far beyond the gates of the World’s Fair. It contributed significantly to the Church’s worldwide image and had a profound effect on the Church’s missionary efforts. In addition, the Church’s use of audiovisual technology in the pavilion pioneered the wide use of such technology by the Church in visitors’ centers, fairs, displays, and mass media today.
The idea to build a major exhibit for the Church to use in telling its story began nearly a generation before the fair. Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Council of the Twelve and President G. Stanley McAllister of the New York Stake were early advocates of the idea.
Stanley McAllister, as a young missionary in the New York area, had imagined the Church’s building some impressive edifice that would stir people’s interest in the Church. In 1961, when it was announced that the World’s Fair would be held, President McAllister, by then a prominent business executive in New York City and president of the New York Stake, recommended to the First Presidency that the Church participate in the fair. He continued to be a driving force behind the project as it developed.3
Elder Petersen, long familiar with the power of the media, had proposed the establishment of “a publicity department” for the Church as early as October 1946. In mid-1962, he was serving as head of the Church Information Service when the official invitation came for the Church to participate in the World’s Fair. Elder Petersen asked President McAllister for recommendations on possible involvement. There were two options available at the fair for religious groups: (1) to lease space from a concessionaire, or (2) to build a pavilion on a site provided free of charge by the New York World’s Fair Committee. However, the choice pavilion sites were going very fast.
President McAllister and his study committee felt that a full-fledged pavilion should be built. On 25 June 1962, however, President McAllister received word that the Church would probably be more interested in a small booth manned by a set of missionaries—which would be more in keeping with the Church’s earlier efforts. An exhibit explaining the Church’s “Word of Wisdom” health code had been featured at the International Hygiene Exposition in 1930 at Dresden, Germany, and the Church had sponsored a booth at the 1933–34 “Century of Progress” Exposition in Chicago. The Church had also built small exhibit buildings at International Expositions held in San Diego in 1935–36 and San Francisco in 1939–40.4 What President McAllister was considering, however, would be a quantum leap beyond these former exhibits. The projected cost was close to three million dollars. It is not surprising that Church leaders were cautious when considering the idea of a pavilion.
Despite early response from Church headquarters, President McAllister’s formal report recommended that the Church build a major pavilion. Several weeks passed, with no word from Salt Lake City. Meanwhile, on August 20, the World’s Fair Operations Department announced that the sites previously discussed with Church officials were no longer available and that the deadline for acceptance of the invitation to participate was at hand.
A worried President McAllister personally telephoned President David O. McKay to explain the dilemma. The next day, President McKay called President McAllister to inform him that the First Presidency had approved the pavilion. He requested that President McAllister negotiate with the World’s Fair Committee for the best site available.5
Elder Petersen and the Church Information Service Committee (CIS) went to work developing a theme and plan for the needed exhibits. President Henry D. Moyle of the First Presidency met with the committee and advised them to “do the job right.”6 Financial roadblocks disappeared.
Five possible sites had originally been available to the Church for its pavilion. Unfortunately, when the CIS committee made its decision, the site they wanted was no longer available. The Church’s second choice also appeared unavailable, and no other site was acceptable to both parties.
President McAllister asked an influential personal friend who was also a personal friend of Robert Moses, president of the New York World’s Fair, to intercede for the Church. His friend was able to secure for the Church its second choice.
The official agreement with the New York World’s Fair was signed by President David O. McKay on 19 October 1962. Representing the New York World’s Fair Corporation was Stuart Constable, vice-president of operations. Mr. Constable expressed his pleasure to President McKay at having the Church represented and assured the president that the site of the Mormon Pavilion was one of the best in the fairgrounds. President McKay responded that it was appropriate that the Church have a choice site, since “nothing was too good for the Lord, and this was the Lord’s Church.”7
The selection of that site would prove in time to be providential. The site was near the front entrance, but next to a proposed foods building whose counterpart at an earlier world’s fair had been an eyesore. However, the sponsors of the food pavilion went bankrupt, leaving the Church pavilion as the first to be seen by visitors entering via the main gates, which were adjacent to a major subway stop.
Rather than leave an unsightly vacant lot where the foods building would have been, fair officials worked with the Church landscapers to create a garden-like setting. Irvin T. Nelson, landscape and pavilion grounds architect for the Church, turned the lot into a place of peace and beauty that contributed greatly to the success of the Mormon Pavilion. The landscaping won praise from the president of the fair and from workers there, as well as a national award for Brother Nelson from the American Association of Nurserymen.8
Flowers would play another important role at the pavilion. Bradley Macdonald of Santa Cruz, California, suggested that the pavilion have begonias in its reflecting pool. With the help of the Santa Cruz Ward and New York Stake members, he would arrange for the daily donation, packing, free air transportation, and pickup of giant begonia blossoms from California.
More than forty thousand blossoms were eventually used, not only in the reflecting pool but also as corsages for dignitaries who visited the pavilion. Irene Staples, a missionary in the Eastern States Mission who worked on public relations for the pavilion and who later served the Church for many years as a hostess in greeting dignitaries visiting Salt Lake City, also arranged the begonias into large, beautiful bouquets and took them to all of the other major pavilions at the fair. Attaching an Articles of Faith card, she would write a brief message: “Best wishes to our good neighbors. From the Mormon Pavilion.” Her efforts did much to further goodwill and heighten interest in the Church’s exhibit.
Brother Macdonald later wrote: “The tremendous good that the begonias have done in bringing beauty to the pavilion, can never be completely realized. For as we would be putting them out on the islands in the reflecting pool, many people would stop and after looking at the beautiful flowers say, ‘My, it is so beautiful here, let’s go inside and see what it is like.’”9
While the site selection process was underway, David W. Evans, president of Evans Advertising in Salt Lake City and a member of the Church Information Service organization, had developed an inspired theme for the Church’s pavilion. The theme of the fair itself was “Man’s Search for Truth.” Brother Evans suggested substituting the word “happiness” for “truth,” reasoning that it would “have a universal appeal to people of all races, creeds, colors, nationalities.”10 The theme was accepted.
The other important step in planning was the selection of the design for the pavilion. Something readily recognizable and uniquely associated with the Latter-day Saints was needed. The design that was ultimately accepted was suggested by Elder Richard L. Evans of the Council of the Twelve and his brother, David, an advertising executive. They had grown up in the Avenues section of Salt Lake City. “Hundreds of times I had walked down the First Avenue hill looking towards the temple spires,” David remembered. “They were unforgettable as I have viewed them often towards sunset.”11 In early November 1962, the First Presidency approved a pavilion design whose facade would be a replica of the three eastern spires of the Salt Lake Temple.
In late 1962, Elder Petersen was called to other assignments, and Elder Harold B. Lee of the Council of the Twelve was appointed Executive Director of the Mormon Pavilion. At about the same time, Elder Bernard P. Brockbank, a new Assistant to the Council of the Twelve, was appointed Managing Director of the pavilion. Elder Brockbank brought to his new assignment not only his expertise in the area of building and construction, but also a missionary zeal that would permeate every aspect of the pavilion. He emphatically insisted that the exhibits proclaim the gospel message, not merely inform visitors regarding the Church; and it was to be done in a manner tempered and refined by public relations professionalism.
When it was announced that the Church pavilion would house two movie theaters, Wetzel O. “Judge” Whitaker and his associates at the Brigham Young University Motion Picture Studio were eager to be involved in film production for the fair. Brother Whitaker and his staff proposed to Elder Evans a film to be entitled What Is a Mormon? Elder Evans commented that he liked their ideas and was sure that one day such a film would be made, but that the Church’s pavilion committee seemed to be leaning toward having a West Coast company produce the film for the fair. However, after the BYU team met with Elder Lee, who encouraged them to fast and pray about the project, there seemed to be a turnaround. When President McKay was asked the day after their special fast who he thought should produce the film for the pavilion, he replied, “Why, BYU of course.”12
Elder Lee charged them to produce a film on “the three great questions of life: where we came from, our purpose and reason for being here upon the earth, and what happens to us after death.” Brother Whitaker and his associates soon recognized the enormity of their project. How would they depict the plan of salvation in thirteen and one-half minutes? How would they portray the premortal world? How would they characterize spirit beings?
Faced with these potential technical obstacles, they proposed instead to produce a film on Joseph Smith’s First Vision. But Elder Lee reiterated that he “would like a story on the three great questions.” He directed them to Doctrine and Covenants 77:2 for an answer to their dilemma in portraying things spiritual: “That which is spiritual being in the likeness of that which is temporal; and that which is temporal in the likeness of that which is spiritual.”13 [D&C 77:2]
Despite the high quality of the professional people involved, as well as the counsel and influence of General Authorities (particularly Elder Evans), the producers of the film characterized it as the most difficult they had ever made. It was as though they were on a treadmill, falling two steps behind for every step forward.
Judge Whitaker recalled: “We all felt the terribly potent power of the opposition [Satan] which dogged us every step of the way. If it hadn’t been for the sustaining hand of the Lord, we would never have made it.”14
No doubt the adversary was aware of the potential for good this film would have throughout the world for years to come. Perhaps no other single exhibit or display at the pavilion had as powerful an influence on visitors as did the film Man’s Search for Happiness. Thousands of visitors commented in the guest registers about the feelings they experienced. One called the film “the most breathtaking, absolutely flawless display of faith, love, and hope I’ve ever experienced.”15
Another, who visited the pavilion with his wife, wrote: “For about a half hour after we left the theatre, we hardly spoke to each other. …
“My wife broke the silence by asking: ‘Can you believe it?’
“I knew what she meant by ‘it.’ ‘It’ referred to your Gospel and the message we got from the movie. My response—‘Yes, I can believe it and it is a wonderful thing to believe. …’
“The … missionaries visited us and taught us about the Gospel. We believed and were baptized.”16
As early as 1962, David Evans had begun his search for talented artists to produce the many paintings and displays that would be housed in the Mormon Pavilion.
Three major sculptures became an integral part of the pavilion. The focal point of its exhibition hall was the statue of The Christus, a marble duplicate of the work by renowned Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen; the duplicate was made for the pavilion by Aldo Rebechi of Florence, Italy. Two other sculptures were done by members of the Church. Avard Fairbanks, noted sculptor and professor of art at the University of Utah, created a statue commemorating the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. Elaine Brockbank Evans, sister of Elder Brockbank, was commissioned to create a statue of Adam and Eve.
In addition to statuary, Brother Evans and Elder Brockbank planned for a variety of dioramas and murals. Two 110-foot murals depicted scenes from the life of Christ and from the history of the Church. Other important murals depicted some of the major Old Testament prophets, the Savior and his Twelve Apostles, and the phases of life that were illustrated in Man’s Search for Happiness. One display in particular was a center of interest. It depicted the boy Joseph Smith praying in the sacred grove.
With the statuary and paintings in place and the displays set up, the pavilion was ready for its first visitors. On Monday, 18 May 1964, President Hugh B. Brown, First Counselor in the First Presidency, dedicated the pavilion in a private ceremony. In just the first few weeks of operation, attendance figures surpassed expectations.
One of the unique aspects of the operation of the pavilion was the use of full-time missionaries as tour guides. “Our missionaries became our most interesting exhibit,” Elder Brockbank recalled. “We had the … visual aids plus their own spiritual witness and so … they became very effective.”17
Hundreds of comments from pavilion visitors confirmed Elder Brockbank’s assessment. A visitor from Georgia commented, “I am inspired by this exhibit and by your young men’s statement, ‘I know this is true!’” A New York visitor observed, “I had previously regarded Mormons as a rather fanatical sect, but I am now impressed as to the intelligence, logic and open-mindedness which these guides have shown.”18
The success of the Mormon Pavilion did not end with the closing of the World’s Fair gates on 17 October 1965. More than fifty million people attended the fair, and nearly six million of them visited the Mormon Pavilion. Nearly a million referrals were obtained and presented to the Missionary Department as a result of the pavilion. About five million Church tracts and pamphlets were distributed at the pavilion. Nearly one hundred thousand visitors to the pavilion bought copies of the Book of Mormon.19
As planned, the pavilion was dismantled and used to construct the Long Island Stake Center in Plainview, New York. The statues, murals, and displays that had been so carefully created were placed in new settings, particularly in new visitors’ centers.
President Wilburn C. West of the Eastern States Mission said that the Mormon Pavilion had created a great breakthrough in missionary work along the Atlantic Coast.20 While no official statistics were kept on missionary lessons taught or baptisms performed as a direct result of the pavilion, David Evans reported that during the year previous to the fair, there had been only six convert baptisms in that area, but he estimated that there were a thousand baptisms in each of the two years the fair was open and “in the succeeding several years, there were six to eight hundred per year.”21
Elder L. Tom Perry of the Council of the Twelve, then a member of the New York Stake, recalled that “the Rego Park Branch was maybe 75 percent converts resulting from the World’s Fair.”22
The enormous increase in missionary activity resulting from the fair was not confined only to the New York City area. Stacks of missionary referrals obtained at the pavilion continued to be used by missionaries throughout the world for years afterward. Even visitors who were not interested in the Church became “missionaries” as they talked about the Mormon Pavilion and showed the brochures they had picked up to their neighbors; some of these neighbors investigated the Church and were baptized.23
The most lasting legacy the New York pavilion left, however, was its influence on future Church exhibits and the Church’s use of audiovisual technology. Experience obtained through this exposition shaped the philosophy behind many future Church visitors’ centers.
As the Mormon Pavilion closed, Elder Brockbank commented: “We now know a good deal more about how to blend visual aids with the spiritual testimonies of the priesthood. We’ve learned to simplify our approach, to stay with first principles, to preach the gospel of Christ in a vivid and forceful manner and still keep this a pleasant experience for everyone. We now look to making expanded use of this knowledge and these practices.”24
David Evans pointed out that “following the fair, the Church decided to participate in other major expositions … [and] also decided to build permanent visitors’ centers for exhibits and displays at key locations in many areas, beginning in 1966 with its largest and most impressive center on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, which used the ‘Man’s Search for Happiness’ theme and many of the paintings, dioramas, and other displays from the New York Pavilion.”25
During the fair, one observer concluded: “Credit for the most singular contribution must go to the Prophet David O. McKay. His was the vision to see what breath-taking achievements could be created in the name of the Lord with a masterful exhibit in the world’s mightiest market place. In a day and generation of enormous decisions, this must be considered divinely inspired.”26
In view of the pavilion’s profound influence on individuals and institutions, the Church’s innovative involvement in the New York World’s Fair was undoubtedly one of the most significant events for Latter-day Saints in the New York City area in the twentieth century. The Mormon Pavilion’s influence, however, reached far beyond the borders of New York, and its legacy will continue to be realized into the twenty-first century and beyond.