The 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition’s most iconic image is the oversized replica of the Liberty Bell, illuminated by hundreds of incandescent bulbs. However, there was another structure that captured the imagination of the fairgoers: the Persian Building, designed by Philadelphia architect Carl Augustus Ziegler. Situated on the banks of Edgewater Lake, the mosque-like dome and towers rose above the squat rowhouses of South Philadelphia like a shimmering apparition. Inside, visitors could admire ancient manuscripts, tapestries, and other priceless art and artifacts.
One would expect that the Persian government would have selected one of its own to design its pavilion, but Carl Ziegler had a track record of designing intricately detailed, historically inspired structures. Born in 1878, Ziegler attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he received his certificate in proficiency in architecture. He then worked in the offices of several prominent architects who masterfully blended impeccable historical detailing with modern needs, most notably Cope & Stewardson (designer of dormitories at Princeton and Penn) and Frank Miles Day (designer of the Jacob Reed building). In 1898, he joined up with architects Louis Duhring and R. Brognard Okie to form the firm of Duhring, Okie & Ziegler. This team became most famous for their Pennsylvania “farmhouse” revival country homes. Their rough-hewn simplicty was a stark contrast to the stiff Gilded Age palaces previously so in vogue with the city’s elite.
In 1924, Ziegler broke from the Duhring firm and struck out on his own as a historical consultant, where he helped supervise the restoration of Independence Hall and Carpenter’s Hall. The 1920s marked resurgence in the popularity of the Colonial Revival and Georgian modes. Yet Ziegler showed himself to be quite adept at learning other historical styles, and the polychrome Persian Building was truly beguiling, standing out in quality and detail from the fairground kitsch that surrounded it. He continued to practice until the 1940s, by which time his encyclopedia knowledge of historical styles (including Persian) had fallen out of favor.
Sadly, the Exposition proved to be a failure, attracting only about 4.6 million paid attendees rather than the 30 million the organizers preducted. Like almost every other structure at the Sesquicentennial Exposition, the Persian Building met the wrecker’s ball. Today, the fairground is the site of Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park and the Sports Complex.
James D. Ristine, Philadelphia’s 1926 Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition(Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2009), pp.70-71.
Sandra Tatman, “Ziegler, Carl (or Charles) Augustus (1878-1952),”Philadelphia Architects and Buildings, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 2020, https://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm/23435, accessed
Martin W. Wilson, “Sesquicentennial International Exposition (1926),”The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, Rutgers University, 2012, https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/sesquicentennial-international-exposition/, accessed April 2, 2020.