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Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Chicago World's Columbian Exposition

More Roman than American, Burnham's Classical Revival buildings embraced Olmstead's grand lagoon with its mindboggling array of fountains, columns, and statuary, which nonetheless, attracted more than 27-million visitors.
Somewhere, it has apparently been written that every great historic event must be commemorated at least once during the ensuing centuries by a World's Fair. In 1876, Philadelphia celebrated it's status as the birthplace of our nation with just such an extravaganza. Accompanying the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the right arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty was the first public demonstration of Alexander Graham Bell's famous communication device (probably the most important event of the fair). In 1903, St. Louis celebrated the Louisiana Purchase a hundred years before. Around 1914 San Francisco used the opening of the Panama Canal as an excuse to attract tourists to Golden Gate Park. Paris and London have held similar celebrations multiple times, though no one now much remembers (or cares) what they commemorated. The same is true of New York's 1964 World's Fair and that of Seattle just two years before.
The Chicago waterfront before Olmstead went to work on it.
The rambunctious Midwestern city of Chicago, during the early 1890s, decided to go all out as they competed with the cities of New York, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. to host a celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America. For various and sundry reasons, Chicago surprised everyone (including likely itself) by winning. What did Chicago have to do with Christopher Columbus? Did Columbus land on the shores of Lake Michigan? Nope. Of course he didn't sail up the Mississippi, or the Potomac or the Hudson Rivers either. Don't ask such foolish questions. Chicago won the competition staged by the U.S. Congress (to the tune of $5-million) because it had lots of railroads to haul tourists in and out, lots of highly ambitious millionaires (and their wives), and lots of undeveloped lakefront property in need of conscientious planning.
The world's fair later came to occupy the lakeshore area center-right.
Just twenty years before, October 8, 1871, Chicago had all but burned to the ground. The Great Chicago Fire left over 110,000 homeless--the greatest disaster in the history of the United States up until that time. With all the stockyards within the city, it's ironic that one particular local bovine got all the blame. In any case, Christopher Columbus be-damned, Chicagoans, more than anything else, wanted and needed to show off their recovery efforts, their communal resilience, and their proud (albeit rather brief) history. The city had been founded as late as 1833, incorporated just four years later. In quick succession came a canal from the lake to the Mississippi River, followed by something like twelve railroads and thousands upon thousands of people. For seven decades Chicago held the title of the world's fastest growing city. Following the fire, it also held the record as having the most skyscrapers in the world, some as high as twenty stories. (Chicago's Willis Tower--formerly the Sears Tower--still holds the height record insofar as the U.S. is concerned.) With such growth, with such infrastructure, with such pride, where Columbus' little fleet actually landed seemed a minor point. Actually, reproductions of the three little galleons did sail from Genoa to Chicago just for the occasion.
An impressive undertaking, even for today's high-tech world.
As important as the fair was to the city, Chicago was, then as now, a city up to its proverbial eyeballs in politics. The first controversy arose as the planning board set about raising funds to pay for it all followed by additional infighting as to exactly where "it all" would be. Chicago had three lakefront areas (parks would be too kind a word for such scrubby acreage). There was Jackson Park, Grant Park, and Millennial Park, among others. The powers that be spent so much time arguing about where and how they lost sight of the "when." Columbus didn't land on San Salvador in 1493. The fair would be late, though the official dedication of the site was held on October 21, 1892. It was another six months, May 1, 1893, before the exposition actually opened to the public. (Probably just as well, given the brutal winter weather on Lake Michigan.)
The men who made it happen.
Three men made it happen: Colonel George R. Davis, Harlow N. Higinbotham, and Augustus Saint Gaudens. Col. Davis displayed his military administrative skills derived from his Civil War service to not only win the competition but to manage and coordinate the ungainly plethora of committees which managed the building and operation of the fair. Higinbotham managed the finances. He actually made the whole thing pay for itself--twenty-one million paid visitors at fifty cents per person, at a cost of (very) roughly $28-million. The difference was made up from other fees and sources, including the scrap value when the whole thing was torn down a year later. Saint Gaudens was on the creative end of the enterprise, principally the steel, plaster, hemp, and paint (or gold leaf) comprising the dozens of sculptures, great and small, dotting the grounds.
What Burnham and Olmstead wrought. Never have two creative minds
worked together so closely with such amazing results.
Two others were the principle planners, landscape designer, Frederick Law Olmstead, and architect Daniel Burnham. Olmstead planned and supervised the site, commanding an army of laborers who worked nearly around the clock to fashion Olmstead's impressive lagoons, quiet islands, wooded walks and the building sites for more than a dozen major temporary buildings. It was he who finally settled the debate as to where the fair would grow into being--Jackson Park. (The fair and Olmstead's work would later spill into other parkland areas as the enterprise gradually grew too large for the initial site.) Meanwhile, Burnham was in charge of designing himself, or coordinating the designs of other architects, on the major buildings to grace Olmstead's lavish landscape. Classic Revival was the rule of the day as what came to be dubbed Burnham's "white city" rapidly took shape during the summer of 1892.
Ferris' giant wheel under construction, 1892; completed only two weeks late.
The exposition itself was six months late.
The star attraction--the future is always
more interesting than the past.
Burnham, early on, encountered a problem. Ever since Gustave Eiffel had raised his massive iron landmark high over the Paris' 1889 Exposition Universelle, it had come to be deemed obligatory that every such endeavor in the future had to have a soaring central symbol to identify it. Burnham called for design suggestions but the results were far from satisfactory in his eyes. It seemed every design engineer simply wanted to out-Eiffel Eiffel. He rejected them all. Yet, the dilemma remained. A second design completion was no more satisfactory except for one novel proposal. A mechanical engineer named George Ferris suggested an upright, revolving, steel wheel capable of supporting 36 "cars" each carrying forty passengers, and towering some 264 feet into the air. Although Burnham like the idea he, along with virtually everyone else, was skeptical that the attraction could even be built, much less operated as Ferris had designed. The central axel alone was 45 feet long weighing 46 tons (the biggest piece of steel ever cast at the time). The cost was $350,000. Though it was six weeks late in completion, the "ride" situated in the center of the midway, so captured the imaginations of fairgoers that even today, the World's Columbian Exposition is still often remembered not for its lavish architecture from the past but for its jaw-dropping Ferris Wheel evoking the engineering promises of the future.

Never before had a world's fair been so electrifying...or electrified.
The fair required three times the power normally consumed by the city.

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