HemisFair '68, held in San Antonio from April 6 through October 6, 1968, was the first officially designated international exposition in the Southwestern United States. The fair, which commemorated the 250th anniversary of the founding of San Antonio, had its beginnings in 1959, when local business leaders, inspired by merchant Jerome K. Harris, started discussing a fair to celebrate the cultural heritage shared by San Antonio and the nations of Latin America—a "Hemis-Fair," as Harris then called it. The idea was endorsed by San Antonio congressman Henry B. Gonzáles. By 1962, when San Antonio Fair, Incorporated, a nonprofit organization, was formed, the aim was a "Fair of the Americas." William R. Sinkin was the first president; a prominent downtown construction magnate, Henry B. Zachry, was named chairman of the board. Two years later, in December 1964, Marshall Steves became president.
Aspirations for the fair grew when Ewen C. Dingwall, who had been vice president and general manager of the Century 21 Exposition in Seattle and was versed in the mechanics of acquiring international status for a world's fair from the Bureau of International Expositions in Paris, was named executive vice president of HemisFair. But by the time the accreditation came (November 17, 1965), Dingwall had resigned (as of May 4, 1965) and been replaced by James M. Gaines as chief executive officer (September 1, 1965). Governor John Connally was named commissioner general.
From the beginning, HemisFair development was financed by a combination of public funding and private underwriting. Public support included $12.2 million from the United States Housing and Home Finance Agency for acquiring and clearing the site, $11 million in publicly approved city bonds for construction of the convention center and arena, $5.5 million in general revenues from the city of San Antonio for construction of the Tower of the Americas, $10 million from the state primarily for the construction of the Institute of Texan Cultures (now the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures), and $7.5 million from the United States Congress for the construction of the United States pavilion. Though it was strongly supported by the local business community, local political leaders, and the press, the project had its share of detractors, who questioned the acquisition and preparation of the HemisFair location, a 92.6-acre site on the southeastern edge of the central San Antonio business district. As part of the "old city," a quiet neighborhood known as Germantown, this area had been settled by a diverse group of immigrants of German, Alsatian, Mexican, Polish, and African American ancestry. The neighborhood’s old buildings also reflected this melting pot—from 1850s simple caliche houses to late nineteenth-century Victorian mansions. Many longtime residents took exception to finding their familiar surroundings designated as an urban renewal site. Fair planners, originally headed by O'Neil Ford, primary architect, and Allison Peery, site-development director, received praise for utilizing some twenty existing structures in the final design, but the presence of such architectural mementoes did little to placate opponents.
In September 1966, two years before the fair opened, the HemisFair executive committee released Ford from his contract, possibly because of the committee's reluctance to go along with his plan to save 120 historic structures on the site. Twenty-two survived. Allison Peery assumed Ford's responsibilities. To receive federal funding, HemisFair officials were required by an amendment proposed by Texas senator Ralph Yarborough to preserve as many as possible of the historic structures on the site. The United States Department of Commerce served as the federal watchdog in enforcing this amendment. According to the San Antonio Conservation Society, the development project displaced a total of 2,239 residences and 686 businesses. It also demolished 1,349 structures and either changed or erased two dozen existing streets.
With the "Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas" as its overall theme, HemisFair capitalized on San Antonio's ethnically-mixed cultural heritage and placed particular emphasis on the city as the future center of international commerce and cultural exchange between the United States and Latin America. More than thirty nations participated, many with exhibit pavilions in the international area, named "Las Plazas del Mundo." Canada, Mexico, Italy, Spain, France, and Japan hosted large pavilions; other exhibiting nations included Belgium, Bolivia, the Republic of China, Colombia, West Germany-Berlin, Korea, Panama, Portugal, Switzerland, Thailand, and Venezuela. With less than a month before opening day, and concerned about the small number of Central and South American pavilions, officials arranged for various sponsorships through the Kampmann Foundation in San Antonio, the Good Neighbor Commission in Austin, and the Pan American Forum of Texas to support a Bolivian pavilion; a five-nation Central American pavilion, representing Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica; and special pavilions of the Organization of American States, representing eleven more Latin-American countries, including Brazil, Argentina, and Peru. The United States Pavilion, on a 4.59-acre site adjacent to the international area, echoed the fair's theme with "Confluence USA"—a two-building complex featuring an exhibit structure and a massive circular theater. With additional construction, this was subsequently converted to serve as the Federal Courthouse. The largest pavilion, that of the state of Texas, was called the Institute of Texan Cultures, and mounted displays of many of the ethnic and national groups that formed modern Texas. Admission into HemisFair was two dollars.
The HemisFair theme structure, the 622-foot Tower of the Americas, remained after the fair as well, as did the Convention Center and Arena. Construction of the tower was noteworthy because of the method employed; the 1.4-million-pound tophouse, containing observation decks and a restaurant, was built on the ground and then moved to the top, inch by inch, with twenty-four steel lifting rods. The process took twenty days. Another notable construction feat was the quarter-mile extension of the San Antonio River Walk into the Convention Center complex, which linked the Paseo del Rio development with the fairgrounds. Some visitors, however, citing the architecture, the monorail, and the slide shows of the nations, claimed that HemisFair was a machine-made fair, derivative from other world's fairs.
Cultural events at HemisFair included theme exhibits, such as Confluence/Cosmos, which presented space exploration, and El Encanto de un Pueblo, which displayed 5,000 toys and miniatures from the Alexander Girard Folk Art collection in a series of miniature "views" of Latin-American village life. The fair sponsored a lavish production of Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlo, an exhibit of major art works from the Prado Museum in Madrid sponsored by the government of Spain, touring stage shows, performances by celebrity entertainers, and appearances by such groups as the Ballet Folklórico de México and the Bolshoi Ballet from Russia.
Major corporate exhibitors with individual pavilions included Eastman Kodak, Ford Motor Company, General Electric, General Motors, Gulf Oil Corporation, Humble Oil (now Exxon Company, U.S.A.), IBM, RCA, and Southwestern Bell. Frito Lay/Pepsi-Cola (see FRITO-LAY CORPORATION) presented a spectacular outdoor event, "Los Voladores de Papantla" (The Flying Indians), and Coca-Cola's pavilion featured the Krofft puppets. Institutional exhibitors included Alive, Incorporated, and the Mormon Church.
HemisFair, which opened in the spring of 1968 with an announced start-up cost of $156 million, was financially troubled from the beginning. Attendance never matched expectations, and the fair lost money, a reported $7.5 million, despite Mayor Walter McAllister's pledge that the exposition would not cost San Antonio taxpayers "a thin dime." On the other hand the fair attracted more than 6.3 million visitors and focused international attention on the city and state. But the site did not become the permanent unifying element that its planners had envisioned. Instead, multiple uses were found for the permanent structures that were left on HemisFair grounds, such as the Tower of the Americas and the Institute of Texan Cultures.
In 1988 the site was renamed HemisFair Park. In 2009 the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation was established by the San Antonio city council, and in 2012 a master plan was approved with the mission to restore historic buildings and provide retail space as well as encourage residential development comparable to the pre-HemisFair days. The redevelopment project also sought to expand the park with the inclusion of more green space, courtyards, and arts and cultural enhancements. In retrospect, many historians acknowledged the HemisFair’s significance as a “crossroads in San Antonio history,” that raised the profile of the city both nationally and internationally and served as a precursor to other economic and cultural developments in the city. To commemorate the fair’s fiftieth anniversary, Viva Hemisfair took place at the renovated HemisFair Park on April 6–8, 2018, and included art and historical exhibits, food, concerts, and other events. In addition to commemorating the history of the HemisFair, this weekend celebration also sought to acknowledge and honor the neighborhood that the 1968 fair had displaced.