Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

Pennsylvania Farm ShowFor more than 30 years before Lawrie & Green developed the design for The State Museum and Archives Complex in Harrisburg, Dauphin County, the architectural firm designed a number of other important structures throughout the city, including the Pennsylvania Farm Show building.

The Pennsylvania Farm Show began in 1917. In its early years, it was held in several different locations throughout downtown Harrisburg. An estimated 5,000 people attended the first show. The event continued annually each January at a variety of venues, but by the 1920s it had become so popular with the nonfarming population that overcrowding became a serious problem. In 1921 the State Fair Commission was established, and one of its mandates was to procure land to build one structure that could accommodate all aspects of the event. The commission recommended a site and obtained estimates for the building, but economic factors prevented the plan from gaining necessary legislative support.

In 1927 the State Farm Products Show Commission replaced the 1921 group. This nine-member committee brought the plans of a unified Farm Show complex to fruition. The funding was included in a bill appropriating money for a new Education Building, later named the Forum Auditorium. In February 1929, after months of research, including visits to similar facilities in other states, the commission approved a state-owned 40-acre tract north of Harrisburg’s downtown as the site for the new building, an accompanying pasture and parking areas. They also approved a design that had been submitted by Lawrie & Green. This design had to be modified following submission of bids by contractors, the lowest of which was a million dollars over the appropriated amount. A scaled-down version was put out to bid and a contract was awarded on October 24, 1929. Ground was broken on October 31 and construction continued throughout 1930.

The completed building covered nearly 10 acres and could accommodate thousands of people and animals. The previous year’s Farm Show had been spread over 22 different sites and officials estimated that 80,000 people attended. With the opening of the new building for the 1931 show, interest in the event swelled. Streets were jammed with cars trying to make their way to the Farm Show Complex, and when the week was over, attendance estimates exceeded 250,000.

Detail of the original 1929 design showing the Main Exhibition Building with the proposed coliseum, built 10 years later in a different position as the Large Arena.

Detail of the original 1929 design showing the Main Exhibition Building with the proposed coliseum, built 10 years later in a different position as the Large Arena. Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-20

The building itself was impressive and distinctive in its modern Art Deco style. It had a brick exterior, whereas other recently constructed state government buildings in the nearby Capitol Complex were classical in design and built of stone. Especially notable is the frieze of farm animals depicted along the roofline. The Farm Show building was also distinctive from others constructed at large agricultural fairgrounds because of its enormous expanse of indoor space. Other facilities generally hosted events in the warm months of the year and did not have the requirement of having all of their spaces enclosed.

The Farm Show Complex has been expanded over the years, most recently in 2001. The addition of the Equine Arena and Expo Center nearly doubled the previous footprint. Expanded offices and banquet facilities were also part of this project. The Pennsylvania Farm Show is currently the largest of its kind in the nation, with attendance in recent years approaching 500,000. The Farm Show Complex now covers 24 acres and, in addition to the Farm Show, hosts more than 200 other shows and events throughout the year.

 

Karen Galle is on the staff of PHMC’s Bureau for Historic Preservation and has been the coordinator of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program since 2005. Previously she worked for 10 years in the agency’s former Commonwealth Conservation Center.