The Columbian ExpositionBy Frank Swanson
In 1890, Chicagoans scored a surprising coup when they beat out New York, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., for the privilege of hosting the World's Columbian Exposition. With this honor, citizens of this still-young city stepped into the global spotlight and accepted the challenge of organizing a world's fair that would outdo the immensely successful Paris Exposition of 1889, which premiered the Eiffel Tower among other modern wonders. At stake was not only Chicago's reputation, but that of the entire nation.
Envisioned as a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's voyages, the exposition was set to open in 1892, giving the fair's organizer's barely two years to turn swampy Jackson Park on Lake Michigan into a vast showplace for international commerce, culture, science and technology. The fair's Director of Works Daniel Burnham, architect of some of Chicago's first skyscrapers, enlisted a who's who of American architects and planners, including Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of New York's Central Park. Together they and an army of laborers and craftspeople transformed a desolate lakefront into a Beaux Arts wonderland destination with soaring columns, classical statuary and majestic domes.
The cavernous Manufacturers and Liberal Arts building, crowded with the latest products of an industrial society, was at the time the largest building ever constructed. Electric boats glided across a lagoon encircling a bucolic wooded island, and at night, a dazzling array of electric lights outlined each building and illuminated the grounds, a sight unlike anything most fairgoers—accustomed to kerosene lamps and natural gas flames—had ever encountered.
In contrast to the monumental architecture and edifying exhibits of the main fairgrounds, the exposition's Midway Plaisance was packed with fun things to do, including concessions designed to look like villages from exotic lands along with America's answer to the Eiffel Tower—the world's first Ferris wheel, an awesome, 260-foot-tall steel contraption with 36 cars, each one large enough to carry 60 passengers.
Today, few signs of the great fair remain. Most of its marvels were temporary steel-framed structures with wooden exteriors coated in staff, an easily molded stuccolike material. What's more, a period of labor unrest following the fair coincided with a suspicious fire that destroyed many of the fair's grandest buildings. Even the Ferris wheel's novelty faded, and it was eventually dynamited and sold for scrap.
The only major exposition building left behind in Jackson Park, the Palace of Fine Arts, now houses the Museum of Science and Industry . Olmstead's lagoon and wooded island remain, though somewhat altered, along with a one-third scale replica of “The Republic,” the 65-foot-tall gilded statue of a woman in robes and armor that presided over the exposition and came to symbolize its grandeur.
But the fair's legacy extends far beyond its scarce physical remnants. The Field Museum , then called the Columbian Museum of Chicago, was established to house the exposition's biological and anthropological exhibits, and the current Beaux Arts home of The Art Institute of Chicago in Grant Park was built for the exposition's scholarly meetings.
The exposition's influence can be seen in everything from electricity delivered via alternating current to modern theme parks. American companies debuted such now-familiar products as Cracker Jack, Cream of Wheat and Juicy Fruit gum at the fair. And what carnival would be complete today without a Ferris wheel or a ride-packed midway, a word that entered English courtesy of the exposition's Midway Plaisance?
With the fair's success, Chicago elevated itself among the world's great cities and thumbed its figurative nose at Eastern naysayers. The city pays tribute to this historic event within its municipal flag; of the four red stars prominently arrayed across the flag's center, one represents the World's Columbian Exposition.
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