119 Years since 1893: A Visit to Jackson Park

October 22, 2012
the fair

Next week 119 years ago, with a crisp chill entering the air, the closing ceremonies concluded, the crowds began piling into Pullman cars to head back to their own parts of America, and the World Columbian Exposition’s dismantling began.

Very little of the fair remains in Chicago’s Jackson Park. Mere months after the fair ended, most of the buildings—built to be temporary anyway, for all their grandness—burned to the ground. The headlines screamed, THE WHITE CITY IN FLAMES; FIRE DESTROYS THE FAIREST OF THE BEAUTIFUL BUILDINGS on January 9, 1894. The suspects were “tramps,” the newspaper said, who had been squatting in the unused buildings.

Some gems do still stand in Jackson Park today—which, if not completely original, are still sentry posts of another time with a story to tell of the former fairgrounds around them.

The Palace of Fine Arts is the only remaining building of the Columbian Exposition, which you can visit now in the form of the Museum of Science and Industry.

Designed originally by Charles Atwood of the architectural firm Burnham & Root, it survived the White City’s destruction, thanks to a unique brick infrastructure behind the plaster façade it held in common with the other buildings. After the fair, it served as the first home of what would become the Field Museum of Natural History, until the Field moved to its current building nearer downtown in the 1920s.

By then, the temporary Beaux Arts exterior had decayed significantly, and required reconstruction in limestone to become the Museum of Science and Industry. Architect Alfred Shaw oversaw a total redesign of the interior, but the iconic exterior was copied exactly, and it opened as the science museum we all know and love in June 1933.

A replica of the Statue of the Republic, known as the Golden Lady, presides today over a traffic circle in Jackson Park.

She’s actually standing on the former site of the fair’s grand Administration Building, and gleams with gold leaf on bronze. An impressive sight to behold, and imagine—and this is, at 24 feet, only one-third the height of the original statue which was a centerpiece for the fair.

The original (65 feet high, gold leaf on plaster) was designed by Daniel Chester French, who is well-known as the designer of seated Lincoln at his memorial in Washington, D.C. Because the first Golden Lady perished in a fire, French produced a replica in 1918, and Henry Bacon of New York contributed the base.

At a total height including base of over 100 feet, The Republic must have been impressive indeed, towering above all the buildings and the framing colonnade, and clearly was in part intended to be Chicago’s answer New York’s Statue of Liberty, as the Ferris Wheel was to Liberty as well as the Eiffel Tower and the Brooklyn Bridge.
—Gary Ossewaarde

For a tale of how to rig a 65-foot-high lady in plaster, read the rest of Mr. Ossewaarde’s account.

Today’s Osaka Japanese Garden flourishes on the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s pet project of the World’s Columbian Exposition, the Wooded Island.

Originally, the Wooded Island housed the Japanese exhibition with its traditional Ho-o-den, called the Phoenix Temple, and tea house. These structures harmonized with the Wooded Island’s rustic, natural setting, and introduced many Americans to Japanese culture—which in the earlier part of the 19th century had been shrouded in mystery—for the first time.

The Phoenix Temple and tea house survived the fires that burned the rest of the world’s fair buildings; they met their demise later, in the 20th century. In fact, they were a feature of Chicago’s second world’s fair, A Century of Progress, in 1933. For this exposition, the Japanese government chipped in to create a new traditional Japanese garden, designed by George Shimoda, and restore the Phoenix Temple.

In 1941, however, just after the U.S. entered World War II in response to the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese structures on the Wooded Island were burned by vandals. Two wood panel fragments from the Phoenix Temple survived. The panels were restored by the Art Institute of Chicago recently, and are on permanent view there.

In the ensuing years, the Wooded Island became a nature sanctuary, overgrown and wild with prairie grasses, wildflowers, weeds, and old, beautiful trees. Birds stopped there during migrations, and it became a place to watch for cardinals, robins, catbirds, red-wing blackbirds, and yellow warblers. Finally, in the 1980s, a Japanese garden like the one Shimoda designed was reconstructed, flanking a lagoon consisting of a simple tea house, rock waterfall, Japanese pines, and more. That would be the Osaka Japanese Garden we can stroll through today. (For more photos, click here.)

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