People & Events: World's Columbian Exposition of 1893: The Court of Honor
America hosted the World's Fair of 1893 as a celebration of Columbus' voyage to the continent four hundred (and one) years earlier. Chicago beat out New York, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. for the privilege of hosting the fair. Like the 1876 Centennial Exposition before it, the Fair provided a showcase for American power -- and a reflection of the nation's prevailing values.
The board supervising the fair invited Frederick Law Olmsted, America's premier landscape architect, to develop a site and plan for the fair. With his partner Harry Codman, Olmsted chose Jackson Park on Lake Michigan. Rather than design a landscape, Olmsted and Codman conceived of a spectacular seascape. Along with the lake itself, a series of artificial pools and canals would contrast with islands and raised terraces for the buildings. An arrangement of buildings around a terrace had been used at the last World's Fair, in Paris of 1889 -- but the Chicago site was four times larger.
Daniel Hudson Burnham, of the Chicago architectural partnership Burnham and Root, the chief of construction for the fair, enthusiastically adopted this proposal. Burnham then suggested that the greatest American architects of the time contribute designs for the buildings. The contributors included Richard Morris Hunt (who built the façade of the Metropolitan Museum in New York), Charles McKim (New York Public Library), Robert Peabody, George B. Post (New York Times building), Henry Van Brunt, Louis Sullivan, and William LeBaron Jenney (Home Insurance Building of Chicago, among the first with a steel skeleton). The sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, as artistic director, oversaw the decorative program of the fair, which included works by Daniel Chester French, who later created the statue of Lincoln for that president's memorial, and the Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt.
When the architects met in Chicago in 1891 to share their designs with one another, Olmsted noted, "the general comradeship and fervor of the artists was delightful to witness & more delightful to fall into." Together, they collaborated on a magnificent vision -- and enjoyed their own audacity in dreaming it up. Saint-Gaudens compared the group to the Italian Renaissance geniuses who built Florence. "Look here, old fellow," he said to Burnham, "do you realize that this is the greatest meeting of artists since the fifteenth century!"
The Neo-Classical buildings of Hunt, McKim and the other eastern architects stood around a basin in the Court of Honor; Sullivan's multicolored Transportation Building was off to one side. A mile-long commercial strip, the Midway Plaisance, provided entertainments nearby.
The Court of Honor's buildings served as exhibition halls, housing the newest inventions and appliances for the home and farm, many of them powered by electricity. Visitors gawked at electric incubators for chicken eggs, electric chairs for executions, an electric sidewalk, an early fax machine that sent pictures over telegraph lines, electric irons, sewing machines and laundry machines, and Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope, the first moving pictures. For many of the fairgoers, Edison's fourteen-year-old invention, the electric lightbulb, was a novelty they had never seen before. That the Court was lit at night was itself astonishing. The exhibits helped to demystify the many mysterious new inventions of the age.
The seascape conception worked beautifully. Newly designed electric boats, quieter and smaller than steam-powered boats, carried fair-goers around the site. There were also Venetian gondolas, a Norwegian Viking ship, a Japanese dragon boat and replicas of the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. The World's Fair Steamship Company ran ferries from midtown to the fair with live music on board and the best view of Chicago available for 15 cents.
"The influence of the Exposition on architecture will be to inspire a reversion toward the pure ideal of the ancient," Burnham wrote. Although individual architects like Olmsted and Sullivan were unhappy with the idea of privileging of classical European design over homegrown American styles, Burnham succeeded. The World's Columbian Exposition established a Neo-Classical revival in Chicago and across America.
Although the Court of Honor influenced American architecture for decades to come, most visitors to the fair were more impressed with the Midway.
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