Centennial City

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Several great currents of architecture and taste met and mingled in the buildings of the Great Fair. One was the novel technological invention of construction in metal and glass, so much beloved by modern critics as the ancestor of the metaland-glass monsters of our own day. The vast, transparent, weatherproof open spaces of the Main Building, Machinery Hall, and Horticultural Hall announced a new architecture, whose day was, however, still in the future. Of more immediate effect perhaps was the British Pavilion, built in the contemporary manner of Norman Shaw and Charles Eastlake. The Turkish Pavilion also had a spectacular but, happily, brief impact upon American interiors. The Japanese Pavilion launched the earliest of the recurring waves of Orientalism in America.

But around the great official structures and the pavilions of foreign governments stood a crowd of other buildings. There were 190 of them within the three-mile fence that encircled the grounds, and some of the most popular concessions were outside it. No one paid attention to these private commercial buildings at the time, because they were too familiar; and no one has paid attention since, because our wooden vernacular architecture of the 1870*8 is still a lost cause in American taste. It is nameless—unless “carpenter’s Gothic,” “gingerbread,” or (Heaven help us) “Victorian” can be called names- and anonymous. This was a time when the ingenuity and inventiveness that one school of historians proudly claims for us as a people in technology, and another school grimly denies us in the arts, found a breach in the levee and poured tumultuously through in a flood of towers, pinnacles, verandas, and scrollsaw ornament. How gay, picturesque, and delightful those wooden vernacular buildings of the Centennial were we can see in Kennedy’s water colors. The Great White City of the Chicago fair of 1893 is enshrined in folk memory —we have forgotten that in 1876 the Centennial had a polychrome architecture. We must thank Mr. Kennedy for everything he tells us about Frank Leslie’s Pavilion, about the American Fusee Building (fusees were safety matches), the Turkish Café and Bazaar, the Sheet Metal Building, and other enchantments, forever lost.

In the Vienna Bakery Building Messrs. Goff, Fleishman & Company introduced Vienna bread to America, serving coffee, ices, chocolate, and bread at little marble-topped tables to enthusiastic crowds. “It may effect a permanent improvement in American bread making,” said a writer in Frank Leslie’s Historical Register of the fair. “The Viennese, who are said to be the best bread makers in the world, will then deserve the hearty thanks of the future generations of Americans.” (Another lost cause.)

 

In the World’s Ticket Office “the well known firm of Cook, Son, & Jenkins” (What became of Mr. Jenkins?) not only sold tickets and guidebooks to all parts of the civilized world but displayed the mummy of “an Egyptian princess or priestess, and its case which though 3000 years old, is in an excellent state of preservation. . . . The mummy and case are the property of the Rev. Dr. J. L. M. Curry, President of the Richmond (Virginia) College, who obtained them at Luxor while making a trip up the Nile under the escort of a member of this firm.” And for those contemplating a trip to the Holy Land, behind the building was set up an encampment such as Cook, Son, & Jenkins provided for travellers journeying through Palestine un-, der their charge, complete with the tent in which you would live, the twin iron beds in which you would sleep, a cookstove, and “a real Syrian dragoman and cook.”

This was the stuff to give the troops. The great American rush to travel abroad was about to start.

The transparent delight that breathes from Kennedy’s water colors of the Centennial buildings gives us some notion of what the unsophisticated Americans, his contemporaries, felt. One cannot learn this from faded photographs or woodcut illustrations in Harper’s Weekly and Leslie’s Weekly and still less from the somewhat captious articles about the Centennial in the monthly magazines. The Atlantic Monthly, Scnbner’s Monthly , and the like commissioned descriptions of the fair from urbane, travelled writers who had seen much of the world and really did not care for crowds. Kennedy’s reactions were those of the gentle, untravelled people who were unused to spectacles and crowds, fountains and fireworks, great shining machines, foreign uniforms, and the faces of notables. For these, it was all glorious excitement.