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.