Saturday, November 30, 2013

The White City

In 1893 the soot-blackened, hog-killing, rather foul and grimy -- but vibrant -- city of Chicago beat out New York and Washington DC to become the host city for the great World's Fair of that year, also known as the World's Columbian Exposition (commemorating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's discovery of the North American continent). Even back then, Chicago was a hotbed of talented architects, a characteristic it kept through the twentieth and into the twenty-first century.

Flocking to the World's Fair, Chicago, 1893(source)
To produce this massive fair - and make sure that Chicago and the US of A kept up with, or preferably surpassed, the city of Paris (which had hosted the previous World's Fair) - a band of dedicated architects and rich (very rich) entrepreneurs got together. It was touch and go for a while, but they did it, and spectacularly. The resulting Fair Grounds, built to the south of the grimy city in the Jackson Park area, was comprised of mostly temporary buildings in grandiose neo-classical style. When time was running short, the decision was made to basically whitewash the lot of them. The result was very wonderful and very white. The Fair was dubbed "The White City".

The Rookery, Chicago
The lead architects on the project were Burnham & Root, though Root passed away before the Fair (he died of pneumonia early in the planning process). Their firm had nurtured several up and coming men who later became architectural 'names', including Louis Sullivan and a young Frank Lloyd Wright. The shape of the Fair was formed from the 'control room' on the top floor office of Burnham & Root in a landmark building they'd built in the Chicago Loop, on South La Salle Street not far from the Board of Trade Building, named The Rookery. Today you can visit that top floor office - at the soaring height of eleven stories, where Burnham & Root conferred with their fellow architects, and the famous landscape architect from New York, Olmsted, over plans and schemes. The group could see the Jackson Park area from the windows, if they looked.

THE office, of Burhman & Root, 11th floor, The Rookery, Chicago.
Visiting The Rookery is fascinating in itself. Take a guided tour and learn all about it:
The Rookery...was revolutionary in several respects. Its architecture was unique and much more ornate than had been seen to date in commercial buildings. The Rookery successfully implemented many new and breakthrough building technologies - including metal framing, elevators, fireproofing, electrical lighting, and plate glass - that established the commercial acceptance of the modern skyscraper. At 11 stories tall, The Rookery was one of the earliest examples of metal framing with masonry walls on such a large scale. Today, it is considered the oldest standing high-rise in Chicago. 
Moorish, Romanesque Commercial, Indian, Venetian, Arabian, Islamic, Byzantine: all these words have been used to describe the Rookery’s exterior motifs. Some critics said that the mix of styles lacked unity, but others felt that the repeating patterns were an interpretation of American culture, reflecting a spirit of conquest.
Frank Lloyd Wright's idea of an office building atrium.
FLW's decorative touches, Rookery atrium.
The oriel staircase, The Rookery
The building is probably still great to work in - it has a wonderful large atrium letting in light to interior offices. These were favoured in the early days, since it was better to look inwards than outwards onto the dark, stinky streets. The atrium was remodelled in 1905 by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright, who covered it in light marble and delicate art deco decorations.

The first Ferris Wheel (source)
But back to the Fair - people flocked to it, 27 million visitors in 6 months. "Sell the cookstove if necessary and come. You must see the fair." wrote author Hamlin Garland in a letter to his parents in 1893. And what did they flock to see? The grandiose white buildings, the landscaping of a previously marshy area, the artificial lake with an island and a steam boat. But above all the exhibits - examples of the latest technology in the Electricity Building and the Manufactures Hall. The whole fair was powered and lit by the new-fangled electricity -- not using coal and gas allowed The White City to stay white.

They also came to see new inventions, like Wrigley's Juicy Fruit chewing gum. They came to see and ride the amazingly huge world's first Ferris Wheel (designed by a Kansas engineer named Ferris, expressly to out-do the Paris Fair's Eiffel Tower). And they came to see curiosities (including native peoples) from far-flung countries around the world which they'd be unlikely ever to visit, and to see animals and crafts, minerals and plants, that were strange and curious.
At Chicago's Field Museum.
You might pause to wonder what happened to all those stuffed wild animals, mineral specimens, fossils, jaw-bones, Indonesian gamalans, Japanese kimonos. Answer: many of them ended up forming the initial collection of Chicago's natural history museum, called The Field Museum (after business man and department store pioneer, Marshall Field, who donated the wherewithal). The Field Museum has rummaged in its basements and curated a fine exhibition (runs until September 2014) where once again you can marvel at the things that made the eyes of 1893 pop. I was particularly taken with the stuffed animals, in excellent condition even after 120 years in the basement. Many are the work of the man who became the Museum's own taxidermist, Carl Akeley. (Two of his elephants are on display in the Field's main hall).

There's a great review of the Exhibition from the new York Times here, with pics of some of the exhibits. The Museum's display is enlivened by some rather intriguing animated postcards. Video artists have taken postcards from 1893 and added in some moving figures. It's just like being there. Sort of.

The White City is said to have inspired a whole movement focussed on urban planning:
The White City is largely credited for ushering in the City Beautiful movement and planting the seeds of modern city planning. The highly integrated design of the landscapes, promenades, and structures provided a vision of what is possible when planners, landscape architects, and architects work together on a comprehensive design scheme...Where the municipal art movement focused on beautifying one feature in a City, the City Beautiful movement began to make improvements on the scale of the district. The White City of the World's Columbian Exposition inspired the Merchant's Club of Chicago to commission Daniel Burnham to create the Plan of Chicago in 1909, which became the first modern comprehensive city plan in America. (from Wiki)
The Fair had more than 200 buildings, almost all of which were designed to be temporary. Their facades were made not of stone, but of a mixture of plaster, cement, and jute fibre called staff, which was painted white, giving the buildings their "gleam". Architecture critics derided the structures as "decorated sheds". (Wiki) In any event, the whole lot burnt down in a big fire in July 1894, about six months after the fair closed. A couple of survivors, which were intended to be permanent, remain: the Palace of Fine Arts (original home of The Field, now Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry); and the World's Congress Building in Grant Park (now the Art Institute of Chicago).

And in the Art Institute you can find, if you look closely, a few more remnants of the original fair, including these panels from the Japanese Pavilion, restored and displayed in the oriental art section of the galleries:

Panels from the original Japanese pavilion at the 1893 World's Fair, Chicago.

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