Vol. IV, No. 2, Fall 1990

The Womans Building at the Missouri State Fair

by Karen Grace

The first Missouri State Fair opened in Sedalia September 9, 1901 with eighteen temporary buildings and an attendance of 25,346. The early years of the fair were enormously successful, attracting larger crowds every year so that the facilities were soon severely strained. One of the temporary structures on the fair grounds was a tent, provided by the Missouri Ladies Club, which served as a rest area for women.

The park design philosophy prevailing during the early part of this century was that women and children should have a separate building on parkgrounds. Unlike nineteenth century parks which encouraged family togetherness, early twentieth century park reformers demanded that the sexes and ages be segregated. Thus, the Missouri Ladies Club tent for women.

In May, 1908, the Executive Committee of the State Fair Board voted unanimously to recommend to the state legislature appropriations for three new buildings on the fair grounds, one of which was to be a Womans Building. The Fair Board called the existing situation "deplorable" and declared that the state could do better for its women and children. The state legislature apparently agreed, and in 1909 appropriated $30,000 for a "Womans Building" to be constructed on the fair grounds.

The first such "womans building" in the United States was constructed for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and proved so popular that numerous parks and state fairgrounds followed suit during the next 30 years. A better known influence of the Chicago fair


The Womans Building, Missouri State Fairgrounds, Sedalia, ca. 1910-11. T.W. Bast, Sedalia, architect.
The building was intended to look--and be--like ?home," reflecting a sense of domesticity believed necessary for women and children. The style is that of a Georgian Revival mansion, popular in Missouri and across the nation in the generation following the classical revival model of the Chicago Exposition of 1893.

Photo by Greg Leech

was the revival of interest it created in classical architectural models, particularly Greek, Georgian, and Adam. The exposition's planners mandated a classical theme, which was interpreted in a series of dramatic colonnaded buildings arranged around a central court. The fair buildings and landscapes were widely photographed and reported, and soon its neoclassical models became the latest fashion.The Missouri State Fair Woman's Building (ca. 1910), designed by Sedalia architect Thomas W. Bast and constructed by Ricketts and Gillers also of Sedalia, is an excellent example of the Georgian Revival style popularized in Missouri as elsewhere by the Chicago Exposition.

Bast platted the fairgrounds site, and had designed all of the fair's massive and exuberant red brick barns, pavilions, and other buildings, but he approached the Woman's Building from a different perspective. Unlike the earlier male-oriented buildings, this one must reflect Missouri womanhood; or, in reality, a male ideal of those feminine qualities. The Neoclassical model he chose, with its harmony, balance, proportion, and a kind of order corresponded to what Bast thought a feminine standard of conduct and manners to be. It reflected a belief that the moral wealth of the state was embodied in Missouri women. The design also left no doubt as to woman's place in Missouri society--it was, and remains, the most pleasantly homelike of all the buildings on the grounds.

Pride in the new structure, and in the "women folk" of Missouri, is expressed in this article from the Missouri Ruralist, October 12, 1912:

The Missouri State Fair is one place where the tired "mother of seven" can go for a day of pleasure and really enjoy herself. The State of Missouri believes that the mothers of its sons should be assured the same good time as any other citizen, which doubtless accounts for the little demand for equal sufferage made by Missouri women. In the center of the Fair grounds stands the Womans building. Large, costly and imposing it stands as a monumental tribute to the women of a great state. In it are large restrooms filled with comfortable couches for those unused to the arduous labors of sightseeing. Other portions are devoted to culinary exhibits and conference halls. Upon the walls of the reception rooms hang beautiful pictures. Every woman within the grounds is here "at home."

But best of all, in the rear of this building, removed as much as possible from the din of the Fair, is the nursery and playgrounds for the babies and youngsters. Within a cool shaded room are to be seen dozens of tiny ones, who, under the care of competent nurses, are far safer and more comfortable than they could possibly be in their mother's arms. The sight of this day nursery would warm any human heart.

Outside in a playground surrounded by a high wire netting, children old enough to play are having a good time, far surpassing that of their absent parents. With shouts and chuckles, they teeter and swing and romp, perfectly oblivious of the fact that they are at a State Fair, which they are not old enough to enjoy, nor strong enough to see without "dragging."

A glimpse of these scenes and a visit to the Womans building is enough to assure even the most skeptical that there is no reason why anyone should not see the Fair and that the great State of Missouri looks after the comfort of its women folk and the kiddies.

The Womans Building has seen a variety of uses. In addition to serving as a rest area for women and children, the building, beginning in 1911 and for most of its existence, housed the fine arts exhibits at the fair. At various times lectures, music competitions, and a cooking school were held there and numerous educational exhibits were displayed. In recent years, use of the building for fair activities was discontinued, and the building was partially occupied by a local senior citizens group.

Today, a new chapter in the history of the Womans Building is being written. In 1990 the Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for the buildings on the State Fair Grounds, entered into a cooperative arrangement for long-term use of the building by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The Womans Building will be now used year round for DNR exhibits, meetings, and educational activities.

The Womans Building will be included as part of an historic district nomination of the fairground's historic buildings to the National Register for Historic Places.

Karen Grace is Preservation Planner with the Historic Preservation Program of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.


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