Monday, October 5, 2009
Everyone has been talking about the International Olympic Committee’s rejection of Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Most of the commentary has been about the Games themselves or about the politics of the bid and the President’s personal involvement on behalf of his hometown. But it also makes me think of the most important global event that Chicago has hosted: the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. And, naturally, I think about its impact on land use planning.
The World’s Columbian Exposition was conceived as a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus “discovering” the new world; but more importantly, the intent was for America to show the world (particularly Europe) that We Had Arrived. Extraordinary and highly successful “world’s fairs” had been put on in London’s Great Exhibition (1851)—famous for the Crystal Palace—and Paris’s Exposition Universelle (1889) –where the brand-new Eiffel Tower served as the entrance. In a surprise move, Congress turned down New York’s bid to host the Columbian Exposition, spurning the cultural capital in favor of upstart Chicago, a young city of commerce, manufacturing, and transportation, only recently rebuilt from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 spuriously attributed to Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.
The Columbian Exposition in Chicago was a massive undertaking. Though the issue was in serious doubt, it turned out to be hugely successful. It had impressive displays of American art, technology and innovation. It also had the popular Wheel (the first one designed by George Ferris) among other firsts and attractions. For historians, it was where Frederick Jackson Turner presented his frontier thesis. The Exposition lasted six months (think of that, Chicagoans—makes the Olympic Games seem like an afternoon wiffle ball game in comparison) and total attendance estimates vary from 20 to 27 million, at a time when the total U.S. population was only about 63 million. Erik Larson tells the story of the Exposition (intertwined with that of a serial killer) in his bestseller Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.
By far the most significant and memorable part of the Exposition was the midway Court of Honor. Its buildings were indeed white (hence the “White City” as it was popularly known) and impressed visitors with their neoclassical and Beaux Arts architecture. See pictures here and here. The effect is said to have inspired visions from the Lincoln Memorial to the Emerald City of Oz (I know, that one's green) to Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom. But perhaps even more important than the design of the buildings was the design of the overall plan. The chief designer of the Exposition and the driving force behind its organization was the famous Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. With Frederick Law Olmstead in charge of the landscape architecture, Burnham’s White City was a master plan of buildings with the great domed Administration Building overlooking a marvelous, sweeping public plaza, with gardens and water designs in the large public space, and surrounded by the neoclassical buildings. And Burnham devoted almost as much attention to functionality and infrastructure as he did to aesthetics.
In Part II of this post I will discuss how Chicago's Columbian Exposition led to the comprehensive plan for land use and the rise of the city planning movement in the U.S. So cheer up, Chicago!
- Matt Festa
Link to Part II is here.
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