- Historic Sites
The Great White City
More than any world’s fair before or since, the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 had a lasting effect on its visitors, the taste of the times, and the lusty community that brought it forth
October 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 6
Among the most popular features was the Ferris Wheel, the first of its kind and prolific ancestor of the many lesser imitations that have since borne the name. Standing 264 feet in the air, it carried thirty-six cars, each with a capacity of sixty persons. George Washington Gale Ferris is said to have conceived it, in all its dimensions, during the middle of dinner; and its axle was supposed to be the largest piece of steel ever forged. At fifty cents a trip, it had earned back its $380,000 cost, plus $25,000 royalty on its first profits, by September. This twenty-five minute circuit was probably the easiest way for the footsore visitor to get an inclusive view.
Nothing at the Fair showed more clearly the end of one era and the birth of the next than the paintings and sculptures in the Palace of Fine Arts, the only building from the Fair that still survives. With its original “staff"' replaced by cement, it stands today as the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. The work shown there in 1893 by British and European artists was typical of the overblown romanticism of the period, its addiction to clouds of overfed cupids, pearly-pink maidens in strategically draped chiffons, chivalrous cavaliers, or sweet ragged urchins selling pansies. F. P. Thumann’s Psyche, eventually to be adopted for the label of a popular bottled water, was a typical example. But signs of a coming reaction were plain in the work of Rodin, Zorn, Whistler, Brangwyn, Sorolla, and others. In the American section Whistler, Winslow Homer, Paul Bartlett, Arthur Dawson, and Joseph Pennell were making a name for American artists, despite the lack of public understanding of their work.
It was only natural that the largest crowds should surround Thomas Hovenden’s genre painting Breaking Home Ties, for to many of the Fair’s visitors the farm boy leaving for the city was a family portrait with a personal poignancy. Nevertheless, there was an unmistakable tendency emerging to break through sentimental gentilities into realism, as shown by GeIert’s Struggle for Work, Koehler’s The Strike, Martinetii’s Malaria, and Millet’s well-known The Man with the Hoe. Contemporary critics lamented this trend to “depict the ugly and vulgar aspects of life,” but it might be said of them, as of Ruskin, that the reputations they helped to blast were more important than those they helped to make.
To many visitors, nudity in art was a shocking novelty. “I am a member of the Social Purity Society,” said one woman, “but I felt that they, and myself, condemned without a true knowledge of what we were condemning. I determined to look up the matter from the standpoint ol art instead of ignorance. Whether they censure me or not, I am glad that I did.” Another announced loudly that she was “not brazen enough to face the pictures I hear are in some of the rooms.” But on the whole a great improvement occurred in knowledge and appreciation of the arts. “Here,” said William Walton, “both artist and public may discern how much they have to learn, and to unlearn.”
In spite of the manifest achievements of the Fair, it is plain that the architecture of this “dream in plaster” laid a cold marble hand on American design for the next half-century, covering the country’s banks, clubs, and public buildings with an unvarying façade of granite columns, and squaring the graceful curved windows of the seventies into oblong boxes. The Chicago architects had invited a group of easterners to join them and, with the untimely death of Burnham’s ebullient partner, John Root, the men from Boston and New York—already determined that “Roman classic” must be the motif—took charge.
The great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, who had counted on Root to support his own preference tor bright colors and an “American” style, made one last attempt to dissuade the planners from their “white elephants.” But he lost, and saw his own multicolored and iconoclastic Transportation Building allocated a site apart from the Court of Honor. Later, in retrospect, Sullivan felt the Fair had been like the advance of the boll weevil or the Black Death upon the unsuspecting public. “To them,” he said, “it was a veritable Apocalypse, a message inspired from on high. . . . They departed joyously, carriers of contagion, unaware that what they had beheld and believed to be truth was to prove, in historic fact, an appalling calamity.”
It was said that “Sullivan’s sun set in the golden glow of the door of the Transportation Building” and that the remainder of his life was “merely a measure of his personal tragedy.” But if Sullivan’s was a voice crying in the wilderness, it did not go entirely unheard. His was the only building in the Fair to be given an award by the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. “Only one of these palaces … ,” said André Bouilhet, representing the Union, “is truly original.” In any event, Sullivan’s later career might have been tragic even if the Fair had not existed, for he was not an easy or adaptable man.