February 24: Lotus in the Mud

2016/02/24 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1890 Congress selected the location for the Columbian Exposition.

The “world’s fair” concept was about four decades old at the time; these “universal” expositions had already been staged in London, Paris, Vienna, Philadelphia, Sydney, Melbourne, New Orleans, Antwerp, Barcelona, and Paris.  What a shock it was, especially to fancy dandies in New York, that this next one would be awarded to a city that was thought of by many Americans (most of whom lived on the east coast) as a hardscrabble commercial stopover in the midst of cowboy country–and which was still in ruins two decades after its Great Fire.

Chicago had a lot to prove.  The people behind the exposition, named to honor the quatercentenary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World, not only met but exceeded expectations on all sides.  Just 3 years, 2 months, and 7 days after the announcement was made, the Fair opened to the public.  True, the buildings were short and intended to be temporary, but the site started as a murky swamp (see above) without roads or rails connecting it to the city.  Big Dan Burnham and his Justice League of Architects tamed the 630-acre site, moved tons of building materials (75 million board feet of lumber, 18,000 tons of metal, 60,000,000 pounds of staff) and directed the labors of over 40,000 workers to shape one of the world’s great architectural ensembles that was an unquestioned success, both as entertainment and as architecture.  Keeping in mind that the US population in 1893 was about 67 million, the Fair’s stats can be nothing but overwhelming: over 27 million visitors wandered through 63 million square feet in the 200 buildings representing 46 nations during the Fair’s short life span, from May 1 to October 30 1893–a whopping 5 months, 29 days.

One of the United States’ most beloved songs was a revision by Katharine Lee Bates of a poem she wrote in 1893.  A lesser-known stanza was inspired by the Fair:

O beautiful for patriot dream

That sees beyond the years

Thine alabaster cities gleam

Undimmed by human tears!

America! America!

God shed His grace on thee

Till nobler men keep once again

Thy whiter jubilee!

Image: horse-drwan dredging machine photographed by Charles Dudley Arnold in 1891 (from this source)


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