The Columbian Exposition

How art shapes our lives

Sal MaccaroneOctober 4, 2012 

It is always entertaining to try and imagine what the world will be like a century from now. Even though it is impossible to fully comprehend what the future has to hold, we need only to look at the strides taken during the past one hundred years to get some clues. For instance, my grandparents were born during the 1890's at a time before cars, planes, or electrical appliances. There were only a few rudimentary telephones in use then, and efficient electrical power was just beginning to emerge, but behind the scenes there were many other creative irons-in-the-fire. Far out concepts like the X-ray, radio, television and other wireless type transmissions were all in their infancy. And, as my grandmother would always say as each new discovery would materialize, "What will they possibly think of next?"

The year 1892 marked the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's famous journey to America. So, in celebration of this centenary event, the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 was dedicated (on Oct. 21, 1892) as "The World Columbian Exposition.'

There were many exceptional individuals that would come together to make this an extraordinary event. First of all, the 647 acre exposition was co-designed by Daniel Burnham, a urban planner and Frederick Law Olmsted, who is now considered to be the father of Landscape architecture. Olmsted's balanced symmetrical layout for this [model city] included more than 200 French neoclassical style buildings that were situated between many lakes, canals, fountains, and a massive sculpture of Columbus designed by head sculptor, August St. Gaudens. The whole expanse was on a grand scale that came to represent an American renaissance in the areas of art, architecture, science and technology.

The central hub of the exposition was given the nickname, "The White City," for more than one reason. The buildings were all finished in a white stucco, but more significantly, at night the streets were illuminated with electrical lighting. Much to the dismay of Thomas Edison, his two rivals, Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, won the coveted lighting contract with their alternating current (AC) system. This achievement was to pave the way for the construction of our entire electrical grid. That is not to say that Thomas Edison was not present in the palace of mechanical arts showing of his many other inventions.

Another of the many firsts introduced at the exposition was the original Ferris Wheel designed by bridge builder, George Ferris Jr. A piece of art in itself, the wheel stood almost three hundred feet high. It was comprised of 36 pivoting passenger cages, (which would accommodate as many as sixty people each), all outfitted on a steel structure connected to a seventy ton revolving axle. The total human capacity of this giant contraption was an astounding 2,160 passengers -- at one time!

In all there were 47 nations that sponsored the 60,000 exhibitors. While the whole affair ended up costing a staggering $25 million to build, the six month long event attracted nearly 30 million visitors and showed a two million dollar profit. Here are some interesting facts related to the Columbian Exposition:

Frederick Law Olmsted was also the father of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. who contributed so much to the design of Yosemite National Park, and for whom Olmsted Point is named.

L. Frank Baum was inspired by the White City before he wrote "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," but he called his magical vision, "The Emerald City."

Elias Disney's was a construction worker in Chicago who worked on parts of White City eight years before his son Walter was Born in 1901. Walt later studied photos of the exposition while planning his theme park in Anaheim.

John Muir and Samuel Clemens both attended the exposition and were guests of Nikola Tesla. Muir who was also campaigning for the conservation of Yosemite at the Exposition approved of Tesla's clean approach to energy.

Francis Davis Millet, who was the famed director of art for the exposition would become a victim of the Titanic tragedy 100 years ago, in 1912.

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