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Belgian Pavilion
New York World’s Fair 1939

Read about The Hill District: Robert L. Vann, Lawyer, Diplomat, Crusader, Political Statesman

The Belgian Pavilion, 1939 New York World's Fair Postcard
This postcard is a gift to Bells for Peace Inc. from Frederick Brandt, former curator, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Mr. Brandt obtained this card when he visited the 1939-40 NY World's Fair.

Pictured above: The Belgian Pavilion
Words from a 1939 New York World's Fair Postcard:
"The Belgian Pavilion is located on the edge of the Lagoon of Nations. It is built of stucco and glass and features a 150-foot tower of Belgian gray slate crowned by a carillon of 36 bronze bells cast in Belgium. One wing is devoted to a Belgian Congo exhibit." (Published by Tichnor Brothers, Inc., New York Office, 1472 Broadway, New York World's Fair Officially Licensed, NYWF LIC. 2974, "Tichnor Quality Views" made only by Tichnor Brother, Inc., Boston, Mass.)

     The Belgian Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair was a prefabricated building that represented Belgium at the 1939 exhibition. The building is important because it was designed by the world renowned Belgian architect Henry Van de Velde (1863-1957) and is listed as a National Treasure and a Virginia Historical site. It was conceived to be re-built in Europe. It was also important because it was an early representation of modern architecture.

     Henry Van de Velde was commissioned to design the building in New York after his Belgian Pavilion was seen at the French International Exhibit in Paris in 1937, the last such fair in Europe before the World War II. Since the Belgian Friendship Pavilion, laid out in four sections, could not be returned to Nazi occupied Belgium, it was given to Virginia Union University as a gift from the government of Belgium. Virginia Union was one of about twenty-seven (27) universities interested in obtaining the prized exhibit. It received the gift because of its location and its mission. (Also read the East West Connection by E. Dianne Nelson Watkins.)

     Leon Ploegaerts, Professor Emeritus, Ottawa University and co-author of L’Oeuvre architecturale de Henry Van de Velde, written in French, is an expert on the works of the architect. His references to Virginia Union University’s Belgian Building, with color plates, are documented on pp. 211-213 and 412-414. (Ploegaerts, Leon and Puttemans, Pierre, Bruxelles-Quebec, Vokaer-Les Presses Universitaires de l’Universite de Laval, 1987).

     Ploegaerts related that Oscar Jespers and Henry Puvrez sculpted the ceramic sandstone bas-relief on the side of the building. According to a document called “Plan of the Belgian Pavilion (p. 18),” the sculpture “evokes Belgium at Work and is believed to be the largest bas-relief executed in ceramic since the celebrated frieze “Archers” of the Palace of Darius I at Suse (Persia), dating from about 500 B.C.” (Undated paper from Belgian Friendship Pavilion description, New York World’s Fair 1939-1940, located at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources)

     According to documents in the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the L’Oeuvre architecturale de Henry Van de Velde, the New York building had the following features: patio, cafeteria, atrium, colonial pavilion, hall of honor with a raised gallery, arts and crafts gallery, industries gallery, pavilion of the Belgian Congo, exterior staircase leading to the terrace of the restaurant located above a cinema.

     There also was a carillon that periodically played Belgiam folk songs and the Belgiam National Anthem. (Elena Danielson, Associate Director of the Stanford University Hoover Institution Library and Archives, in her booklet: “For Peace Alone Do I Ring, the history of the Hoover Tower Carillon May 22, 2011 es, Leland Stanford Junior University, Pp 20-21.)

     Virginia Union paid for dismantling the building to its new site. Virginia Union’s cost for the building, that included the tower (called belfry), was $500,000, raised largely through the work and influence of its first African American president, the late Dr. John Malcus Ellison (1889-1979). The Belgiam government gave Ex-President Hoover (1874-1964) the building’s carillon for his new library in Stanford University’s Hoover Institution Library. Consequently, he (Hoover) raised the needed $16,750 for the carillon. The Belgian American Educational Foundation (BAEF) provided added assistance. In both instances there were to be on-going costs for renovations and repairs.

Reshaping the Belgian Building for Virginia Union University

     The Ploegaerts and Puttemans book, referenced above, describes the reconstruction of the Belgian Building on the campus of Virginia Union University. Three buildings are laid out in a U shape and include the industrial gallery from the original building transformed into a library with the tower reserve for 94, 000 volumes. Set up perpendicular to the library to which it is attached by the tower, is the former colonial pavilion transformed into a science center linked by a covered passage to the former hall of honor converted into a covered basket ball court for 2000 spectators. The first stone was laid on June 19, 1941 and it was completed in 1942. It has not undergone major modifications and so has retained its original style.


     Leon Ploegaerts, Professor Emeritus, Ottawa University and co-author of L’Oeuvre architecturale de Henry Van de Velde was interviewed by Dianne Watkins in spring 2004 by telephone, informing her of his book.

     Donald Scoggins, grandson of Dr. Ellison obtained a copy of related pages of L’Oeuvre architecturale de Henry Van de Velde from the Library of Congress. Andrea Murphy, Cultural Officer, the Embassy of Belgium conducted the translation from the French version to English in spring 2005 for Dianne Watkins. Dr. Elena Danielson sent Dianne Watkins a copy of her book: “For Peace Alone Do I Ring” in spring 2004.

Belgian Pavilion Paris 1937

     The International Exposition of 1937 marked a competitive showing of national pavilions. The large representation of foreign nations was quite remarkable given that the Exposition was held during the Great Depression. The Belgian Pavilion had pride of place among these national pavilions. Its chief architect was Henry Van de Velde (1863-1957). A major pioneer who at the very beginning of the twentieth century helped Belgium establish a leading role in the Art Nouveau movement, Van de Velde was intrigued by the theme of the fair, the connection between the arts and techniques of modern life.

     This photograph was published in a 1937 issue of L'Illustration, a French news weekly which catered to the conservative middle class. The Belgian Pavilion had a prominent location in the fairgrounds as the first structure situated Northeast of the Eiffel Tower along the bank of the Seine River, which French Prime Minister Léon Blum, and Leopold III, the King of Belgium, had agreed upon. Belgium's prestigious location can be attributed to its historical ties with France. In 1794, Belgium was conquered and annexed by France and that stayed under the French Empire of Napoleon until 1815, during which time French became one of the country's national languages.

     The architecture of the Belgian Pavilion marked a change from its previous pavilions at the 1900 and 1925 fairs, which were patterned after historical monuments in Belgium. The former was an exact reproduction of the City Hall at Audenarde, while the latter related to the gigantic Palace of Justice in Brussels. While these earlier structures stood relatively tall and vertical, the 1937 pavilion was quite low and horizontal, as opposed to the towering Soviet and German pavilions directly across the Seine River.

     The Belgian Pavilion stood out from the other pavilions of the Exposition. The motto of the building was "originality in concept / perfect in execution" (Industries). Henry Van de Velde designed the exterior along with collaborating architects, Jean-Jules Eggerick (1884-1963) and Raphael Verwilghen (1888-1963). Van de Velde patterned the pavilion after the Industrial Art of Belgium. It was composed of terra cotta plaques that measured 80 by 60-cm. The pavilion used modern architecture with its simple geometrical forms and uniform surfaces. The horizontal lines of the pavilion are emphasized by its proximity to the ground. Gardens, designed by Louis Van der Swalmen, surround the exterior of the pavilion. The interior of the pavilion showed the refinement and comfort which Belgians enjoyed at home and in their personal life. It contained magnificent tapestries, crystals, and Belgian furniture.

     The reactions to the Belgian Pavilion were mixed. The American architectural historian Henry Russel Hitchcock, a champion of modernism wrote,

     " The Belgian Pavilion is a rather disappointing work of the grand old man of European architecture, Henri Van de Velde, for which perhaps his younger associates may be blamed. It is most effective at night when the heaviness of its red terra facing to some extent disappears. But beside the lightness and vitality of the illuminated Eiffel Tower, it appears even at night to belong to another world.

     Although without much distinction of proportion, its thin curtains of white pale blue and yellow, and its opposite wall of red marble and mirror is vying more successfully than do most of the sumptuous interiors of this building with the comparable splendors" (Hitchcock, 168).

      Serge Chermayeff (1900-1996), another well known Modernist architect, wrote: "The Belgian Pavilion is very Belgian: solid (perhaps too solid for an Exhibition building) and a trifle unimaginative, but a serious piece of architectural design well adapted to the type of display and in most cases well detailed" (Chermayeff, 109).

      The International Exposition of 1937 was a remarkable display of national pavilions, of which the Belgian Pavilion was a vital asset. Following the Exposition, it was demolished* and Van de Velde's attempt to reconstruct a replica in Brussels was unsuccessful.
-Sesan Iwarere

*Note: The Belgian Pavilion of the 1939 New York World’s Fair was not demolished. In 1941, it was dismantled and relocated to the campus of Virginia Union University where it housed a library, gymnasium, and science and art classrooms. This information was brought to the attention of Stanford University and Hoover Presidential Library archivists in March 2004.
- E. Dianne N. Watkins March 2004

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