The idea seems, from our vantage point a half-century away, stunningly ambitious and weirdly deja vu: a vast global festival to trumpet Boston’s greatness and revolutionize its future, transforming a chunk of Boston Harbor into a floating city for tens of thousands of people to live and work, enjoying the latest in Betamax-era technology.
Stranger than fiction, right? But in the mid-to-late 1960s, the Boston public engaged in deliberation over the project, known as Expo 76, a visionary world exposition plan, designed to beat Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., for the honor of being named home base for America’s 200th birthday.
It was, until recently, the last time the city grappled with bold plans to capture, however briefly, the attention of the entire planet.
By 1969, the expo plan had been ground down by nimbyism, environmental concerns, frets about costs, and a militant opposition led by polarizing South Boston politician Louise Day Hicks, who would also play an outsize role in the city’s internecine struggle over busing and school desegregation.
The public argument over Expo 76 can be seen as the present written in the past, a nearly 50-year-old first draft of today’s debate over Boston’s bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. Both projects were launched on promises to raise Boston’s profile, improve public transit, and leave a permanent legacy of benefits in its wake. Each ran into walls of skepticism and doubt, and spurred a noisy public point counterpoint.
These debates, long separated in time, can be taken as evidence that Boston’s DNA carries a bias against big bold ideas, or, some might argue, big bad ideas.
The parallels between the 1960s debate and today are not perfect, and it is not entirely fair to compare modern, prosperous Boston with the hollower city of a half-century ago. But a lesson that carries forward is that big ideas survive only by the will of a fully engaged citizenry, said Jan Wampler, now 75, a lead architect on the expo plan and one of the few principals of the project still around.
“Through my work in architecture around the world, I always involve the community,” Wampler said, “because, if you don’t, people will destroy what they’re not involved in.”
Some may remember the US bicentennial mainly as the year cities and towns painted fire hydrants red, white, and blue, but there was a time in the 1960s when the US government considered doing something massive and grand to mark the upcoming birthday.
The idea was for an exposition to be held in a history-rich city, with participation from other nations and the goal of drawing tens of millions of spectators from around the world. A presidential commission was appointed to vet the ideas, for which the federal government was expected to chip in around $250 million.
As with Boston 2024, the expo effort was led by a prominent businessman, Gilbert H. Hood, a member of the Hood dairy family and a one-time president of the Boston Chamber of Commerce, according to news coverage from the 1960s and early '70s. The plan was ultimately embraced by Mayor Kevin White, who supported spending $75 million in city money on the project, which was expected to cost more than a billion dollars.
“Kevin White wanted to make a splash,” said retired Globe political reporter Martin F. Nolan, who wrote about the expo plans in 1969. “He loved to use the phrase world-class city [about Boston], which it wasn’t at the time; which it is now.”
Wampler, in his late 20s at the time — in an age when his generation was taught not to trust anybody over 30 — worked for the Boston Redevelopment Authority leading a team of designers. They worked in a secret location in an old storehouse on the waterfront, out of sight of potential spies from Philadelphia.
“We worked night and day for three years,” Wampler said. “We had two shifts — 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. — and I worked both.” He slept on the Ping-Pong table that the design team kept around for recreation.
Much about the expo plan seems like it was transported from some other time or reality, starting with the logo, which looked like the letter Y in a futuristic font.
The plan was to connect Columbia Point in Dorchester to Thompson Island, using a lattice of floating platforms on the harbor, built around a large water plaza. Plans called for large, framed structures on the lattice in which countries and industries participating in the fair could build their exhibits. Designers included numerous theaters, auditoriums, labs, and classrooms in the plan.
“We called it a laboratory to explore urban conditions,” Wampler said, “which included housing, education, health, recreation, etc. It was an example of what could be done, and instead of a fair in that sense, people would experience a new way of looking at cities. . . . What I was trying to do was use the money, from the feds or whatever, to try to solve some of the problems of the world.”
Thompson Island was to be mostly recreation space. It would have had a marina and resort hotel, and an indoor park that could have come from an episode of “The Jetsons”: “A large transparent dome, perhaps 500 feet in diameter,” as the Globe described at the time, “for picnicking and other outdoor activities in inclement weather.”
The real benefit of the plan, supporters said, was that after the fair the floating platforms could be rearranged and the fairgrounds converted to a new city neighborhood on land and water.
“There were also employment opportunities there,” Wampler said. “The idea was you would walk to work and your kids walk to school. And it becomes a big neighborhood, basically.”
As the time neared for Boston to present its plans to the presidential commission, in 1969, opposition heated up, particularly in South Boston.
Future congressman Joseph Moakley, then a state senator, called the plan “pie in the sky” and warned that the expo could disrupt tidal currents and “make the harbor an open cesspool.”
The Sierra Club demonstrated against the project, saying it would “compound existing pollution and transportation problems.”
In a precedent for Olympic opponents now cheering for Paris or Rome to win the 2024 Games, opponents of Expo 76 rooted for Philadelphia to win the fair. South Boston residents carried signs that read, “Don’t be Silly — Send it to Philly.”
As the leader of the opposition, Hicks, the Globe reported, “attacked Expo 76 with the same vigor as Washington took Dorchester Heights.”
Wampler believes Hicks’s opposition was fueled, in part, by the racial tensions of the time. A Globe columnist danced around the effects of race on the debate in 1970, writing that the expo plan had been hurt by “stories that all the harbor islands would be covered with housing for you know whom.”
A few weeks before the big presentation in Washington, in September 1969, the Boston City Council took a read of the local politics and undercut the fair, voting 8-0 for a resolution against it.
Supporters gamely went ahead with the presentation anyway, led by Mayor White and Governor Frank Sargent. The presenters included Thomas Boylston Adams, a descendent of presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, and Elma Lewis, founder of the National Center of Afro-American Artists. Adams died in 1997; Lewis in 2004. Also on the panel was a young novelist, Jonathan Strong, who was not exactly sure why he was chosen, but enjoyed it nonetheless.
“I just thought it was fun to sit at the table will all of these luminaries,” said Strong, now 70, who teaches writing at Tufts University.
It was a time of youth demonstrations, often against the Vietnam War, when business and political classes wanted to know, what does the younger generation think?
“I was a kid [about 25] and I think they wanted to be able say the youth were behind the idea,” Strong said.
Strong sees enormous differences between the distant debate over the expo and the city’s current tussle over the Olympic Games. The expo notion always seemed so tenuous; the Olympics are certain to happen somewhere in 2024. Plus, the modern debate lacks the themes of social division, focused instead on concerns such as costs and inconvenience.
But Strong, who lives in Rockport, said he is “a little wary of Boston trying to do an international Olympics.” The one-time advocate for a big bold project may be on the other side of the debate.
Boston’s disunity over the expo was obvious, and Philadelphia’s presentation before the bicentennial commission twisted the knife: “Every strip of film, every speech focused on how all Philadelphians favor the expo idea,” the Globe reported.
Wampler, who would go on to teach architecture at MIT, said he was “devastated,” after Philadelphia was chosen to be the host.
Philly’s bragging rights were short-lived. President Nixon was cool to the idea of a single point of celebration, and in the end the fight was about nothing. There would be no bicentennial World Exposition.
Mark Arsenault can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark