The 80-foot tall "Luminous Liberty Bell" spanning Broad Street was built in 47 days by Frank C. English & Sons at a cost of $100,000 and was illuminated with 26k light bulbs. The structure contained 80 tons of steel resting on a foundation of 30-foot wooden pilings with a concrete capping. (Wikimedia Commons/The Cooper Collections)

Each time the United States has a big birthday, Philadelphia likes to throw a big party. And each of these parties leaves an imprint on the cityscape — whether or not it’s successful.

The Bicentennial Celebration in 1976, for example, is widely considered a flop. But it’s the reason we have Valley Forge National Historic Park, the clothespin statue, the LOVE sculpture, and an expanded Independence Mall that includes the Liberty Bell.

Right now, Philadelphia is gearing up to do it again for the semiquincentennial in 2026.

But organizers can look to the past for critical lessons — because some of these celebrations fell on harsher fates than others.

Ninety-seven years ago brought one of the worst. It launched on May 31, 1926, as The Inquirer reported with this headline: “Gates of Sesqui Thrown Open to the World”

Engraved invitation to the opening ceremonies for the 1926 Sesqui-Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia, Pa., May 31, 1926 (Wikimedia Commons/Courtesy of the Bruce C. Cooper Collection)

There was reason to believe the Sesqui could be a success.

Philly’s centennial celebration in 1876 was one of the city’s great triumphs.

Not only was it the first World’s Fair held in America, it left behind grand structures like Memorial Hall (today the Please Touch Museum) and basically created the Parkside neighborhood.

After 1876’s success, department store magnate John Wanamaker pushed for Philadelphia to host another World’s Fair in 1926. This would coincide with America’s 150th anniversary.

But like many sequels, the sesquicentennial celebration was a flop.

The Sesquicentennial went sideways pretty much from day one.

When planning began in 1916 the idea was to hold the fair on the just-emerging Benjamin Franklin Parkway and in Fairmount Park. After America’s entry into WWI, that plan fizzled.

After the war, planning began anew. But Wanamaker died from a heart attack in 1922 and soon Philadelphia’s Republican political machine found itself in control of this wobbling project.

Like any good political machine, they knew there was money to be made.

In the early 1920s, Philly’s GOP was controlled by William Vare. He and his brothers were known as the Dukes of South Philadelphia.

Vare was a U.S. Congressman. And his district included a swampy expanse of deep South Philly known as “The Neck.”

Philadelphia Mayor Freeland Kendrick and William Vare in 1927

This area north of the Navy Yard had one road and one trolley line. It was the sticks.

But Vare saw potential and dollar signs. So, he and his allies used their power to relocate the Sesquicentennial to South Philadelphia.

To make this possible, they literally drained a swamp.

Thanks to the delays and political bickering, construction for the Sesquicentennial didn’t begin until 1925.

And when the fair opened on May 31, 1926, it was still being built.

To wit, one of the attractions was supposed to be a “Tower of Light” that projected a 70-mile beam.

The tower wasn’t started until after the fair opened. Then organizers ran out of money. According to historian Martin W. Wilson, it was never completed.

A rendering of the Tower of Light planned for the Sesquicentennial International Exposition. (Tichnor Quality Views/Jefferson University “Philadelphia Postcards” collection)

Beyond the human follies, there were also acts of god.

The first day coincided with a soaking downpour. And the rain kept coming.

Of the 184 days the fair was open — from May 31 to November 30 — there were 107 days of rain, per Wilson.

Oh, and the fair’s director (himself a replacement after the previous person quit) grew ill just before the exposition opened. He died about a week after the kick off. The Inquirer reported at the time he’d suffered a “nervous breakdown.”

1926 Sesquicentennial International Exposition logo. (Wikimedia Commons/The Cooper Collections)

The fair drew about 4.6 million paying customers, well south of the 30 million projected to attend.

And it left the city with a massive debt — and amount that, according to author Thomas Keels, is worth more than $400 million today.

That debt is thought to have been a big contributor to the creation of Philly’s much-maligned wage tax, according to author Brett Mandel.

Though history paints the Sesquicentennial as a boondoggle, it did have its moments.

Organizers built a massive stadium in South Philadelphia for the occasion. During the fair this new stadium hosted a famous boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. 120,000+ attended.

For decades afterward, Sesquicentennial Stadium remained. It was later renamed JFK Stadium.

And soon, the cleared area surrounding it sprouted new sports venues… The Vet. The Spectrum. Citizens Bank. The Linc. Wells Fargo.

Yes, the South Philadelphia sports complex partly owes its existence to Boss Vare.

Same goes for the nearby Packer Park neighborhood, Marconi Plaza, and FDR park,which was built before 1926, but modified as part of the fair.

The layout and character of deep South Philadelphia is forever tied to the Sesquicentennial.

Originally tweeted by Avi Wolfman-Arent (@Avi_WA) on June 1, 2023.

Avi Wolfman-Arent is co-host of Studio 2 and a broadcast anchor on 90.9 FM. He was previously an education reporter with WHYY, where he's worked since 2014. Prior to that he covered nonprofits for the...