HemisFair ‘68 opened on April 6, 1968, in a San Antonio very different from the city we know today.
In the mid-1960s, about 650,000 people lived in San Antonio, a population that was about half of what it is now. So the idea of inviting the entire world to a big event in 1968 was a bold one. Urban planner and writer Sherry Kafka Wagner worked at HemisFair in the years leading up to its opening.
"It was like, 'What? There's going to be a World's Fair in Texas? And it's going to be in San Antonio?' I was real surprised," she said.
Wagner said two strong personalities were irreplaceable in the effort to move the project forward. One was the city's congressman, Henry B. Gonzalez.
"He was the one that figured out this was a possibility, what the kind of requirements that would be, that we could meet those requirements, that he could put it together and what it would mean to the city," he said.
Hilton Palacio Del Rio
The other was Pat Zachry. Retired TV executive Bill Moll said large-scale building contractor Zachry had a specific vision for HemisFair.
"And the Hilton Palacio Del Rio was his recognition that we had insufficient hotel space," he said.
In 1967, Zachry visited a hotel at Montreal's World's Fair, and he was inspired to build one for HemisFair.
At that time San Antonio did not have major hotels, and so the building of the Hilton Palacio Del Rio was a big step forward to satisfy the demands of HemisFair visitors and pave the way towards a tourism industry.
Planners decided to build HemisFair on a 92-acre site southeast of downtown. Sarah Gould at the Institute of Texan Cultures explained that that land was already home to 2,000 families, many who were of German, Polish, Mexican-American and Chinese descent.
Gonzalez helped secure federal funds to buy out the owners.
"Not necessarily at market rate," she said. "I mean it was, 'We're making you an offer. You take it or leave it.' Everybody who lived in the area had to move out."
The site was then razed, and only 24 structures were left standing. Architect O'Neil Ford included them in his HemisFair master plan, which included bold structural designs, including something unique, an inspiration from Seattle's World Fair.
"Quite frankly, if you look at the Space Needle in Seattle and then you look at our Tower of the Americas, you can see the connection," Gould said.
But despite the successful efforts to realize the project, San Antonio itself faced a fundamental problem.
HemisFair's theme was "A Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas" — a hopeful theme celebrating many cultures and many races — and one of its aspirations was to present San Antonio to the world.
But Gould said that those aspirations had to face the realities of 1960s San Antonio.
"There are still places in downtown San Antonio that are still segregated by '62," he said. "And so the fair planners realize we have to desegregate all of downtown because we can't have international visitors and even visitors from the North coming and seeing they're in a segregated town."
Moll remembers how banker Bill Sinkin and his wife Fay Sinkin, two of the HemisFair planners, targeted those businesses that they knew tourists would visit during the event.
"It was Fay Sinkin who was probably more a leader in that sense, from a social conscience that was driving change, than Bill was. Bill was certainly very supportive. But Fay Sinkin was fearless," he said.
Gould said the Sinkins wanted business owners to recognize the potential of HemisFair.
"So they really push the downtown business owners to desegregate, and San Antonio is desegregated by the time the World's Fair opens," he said.
The mid-1960s was a time of huge upheaval in the U.S., with social and political chaos casting dark shadows across San Antonio.
"Just two days before the fair opened, (civil rights leader) Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated," he said. "The U.S. was involved in the Vietnam War, which was incredibly unpopular. And outside of the gates of HemisFair on opening day, there were protesters protesting both racism and the war."
Moll's job at HemisFair was to be the face of KLRN. The PBS affiliate station had a new home in one of the HemisFair buildings, the Texas Pavilion, now called The Institute of Texan Cultures
On April 6, HemisFair opened its gates. With brand new color cameras, Moll went to work creating a daily program.
"I was the host. It was called 'A Day At The Fair.' We did it five days a week (and) distributed it to 20 other educational TV stations around the country," he said. "So the HemisFair story was told far and wide."
The HemisFair party ended on Oct. 6, six months after it opened. Planners and city officials looked at the 92 acres of new buildings and parks as asked themselves, "So now what?"
Even before HemisFair opened, some planners already assumed the redeveloped site would be the new home of the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Wagner built HemisFair's Women's Pavilion. "The building was designed to function as a student center in a university — the University of Texas — that we hoped was going to go there," she said.
Hemisfair Park Redevelopment Corporation
But that idea didn't last long. Andres Andujar, director of the Hemisfair Park Redevelopment Corporation explains that an "offer was made to the University of Texas System for over 700 acres of ranch land (in north San Antonio)," and the System selected that site as UTSA's current home. Andujar said that for decades, plenty of other ideas for the HemisFair site came and went.
In 2009, the city created HPARC to find a way to restore a sense of community around HemisFair Park.
Andujar expects 2,000 or 3,000 people to live in the Hemisfair neighborhood HPARC envisions. But he said he also wants Hemisfair to be a beautiful place for events that include residents from throughout San Antonio.
Andujar wants to turn Hemisfair into a new kind of home and playground for the city, something the original HemisFair builders may not have foreseen.
The 1968 event wasn't a financial success, but Wagner thinks San Antonio's economic success since 1968 is one of HemisFair's great legacies.
The tourism dollars it injected into the city, the social changes it demanded of the community and businesses, and the cultural prestige of hosting a World's Fair all worked together to transform San Antonio.
"To me it was a really good example of a city thinking big. And thinking ahead," Wagner said. "I learned that cities could transform themselves. And they did it at a really difficult time."
Moll agrees. "It was a glorious time. One of the most exciting times that I can remember being a San Antonian," he said. "Many of my friends and I, looking back 50 years, feel as if there's that same energy, that same excitement, same sense of opportunity and transformation for the future going on right now in San Antonio."
Fifty years after HemisFair '68's original investment, San Antonio continues to reap its benefits.
Jack Morgan can be reached at email@example.com