An Exposition for the Ages

In today's world we race to build enough structures to accommodate the Olympic Games every four years, but back in the 1800's, cities raced to build buildings for the World's Fair. The first World's Fair on record took place in 1851 at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London. Subsequent cities to host the fair included Paris, Vienna, Melbourne, and Barcelona prior to one of the most renowned fairs which took place in Chicago. These fairs were and still are designed to showcase the greatest achievements of society and push the limits of construction and design. Each fair influenced some aspect of society, leaving their mark for generations to come. The fairs have been simplified into three categories:

  1. Industrialization (1851-1938)
  2. Cultural Exchange (1939-1987)
  3. National Branding (1988-present)
 Electrical Building  (Image from the Library of Congress)

Electrical Building  (Image from the Library of Congress)

The Chicago World's Fair, more famously known as the Columbian Exposition, was held in 1893 at Jefferson Park. The fair took up 690 acres of land, cost $30 million, and drew 27,300,000 visitors in the six months it was open. The fair celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering America which is why the dedication ceremony took place on October 21, 1892, months before the fair was actually ready to open. Even on opening day, May 1, 1893, the fair was far from complete. The famous Ferris Wheel was still in pieces, the grounds were torn apart, and exhibits were not all complete. Despite the disorganized situation the fair drew thousands on opening day.

 Interior of the Manufactures and Arts Building (Image from the Library of Congress)

Interior of the Manufactures and Arts Building (Image from the Library of Congress)

Rumblings of an economic crash were beginning as the fair opened and kept attendance rates far below the projected and needed numbers to make the fair profitable. The panic of 1893 created high unemployment and rapidly increased poverty. The fair itself however was unique as it created jobs and provided housing for workers. It wasn't until the end of the fair when everyone was out of a job that the effects of the panic were felt by everyone. 

 Goddess of Liberty Statue  (Image from the Library of Congress)

Goddess of Liberty Statue  (Image from the Library of Congress)

Daniel Burnham, the fairs Director of Works fought from beginning to end to make sure the fair drew crowds greater than those seen at the previous fair in Paris. His decision to keep all seven of the great buildings in the Neoclassical style at the same height painted white drew awe and wonder from attendees, but also saved the builders time and money. He employed a skilled workforce that included Frederick Law Olmsted as the landscape architect in charge of completely altering Jefferson Park from a sad swamp land to the beautiful park it became.

 Mines Building under construction  (Image from the Library of Congress)

Mines Building under construction  (Image from the Library of Congress)

What the Columbian Exposition gave to the world was the first ever Ferris Wheel, shredded wheat cereal, incandescent bulbs, and PBR beer, among many other advancements in technology and culture. What it gave us that was not as welcome was exclusion of blacks, portrayals of minorities as cannibals and barbarians, and poorly underpaid women. The fair was only great in its advancement of societies consumerism, but fell far short of any social advancement. 

 The first Ferris Wheel  (Image from the Library of Congress)

The first Ferris Wheel  (Image from the Library of Congress)

Despite the shortcomings of the fair, it was sad to see years of labor and work literally go up in flames. The first fires took out smaller buildings on January 8, 1894, but the real loss was felt when protests due to labor unrest resulted in the arson of the seven great palaces on July 5, 1894. The only building to survive to this day is the Palace of Fine Arts, which now houses the Museum of Science and Industry.

 Grounds of the Columbia Exposition  (Image from the Library of Congress)

Grounds of the Columbia Exposition  (Image from the Library of Congress)

The World's Fair, while still taking place every several years has lost prominence in today's society (the U.S. was not even a contender for 2020). What does get attention are sporting events like the World Cup and Olympic Games. We spend millions to build structures to house all the athletes and attendees only to walk away at the end leaving vacant buildings. After seeing the waste created by these events and the destruction to local economies leaders are finally seeing the need to design for more than a stand alone event. These buildings should stand for centuries to come, providing a second use beyond a sporting event or exhibition. A quick google search turns up numerous examples of the second life given to these giant sports facilities.

It is interesting to see how far we have come from the Columbia Exposition 125 years ago. We build with machines instead of horse power, we can phone or text contractors, we have unions for all the trades and set work hours, but there are too many aspects that have not changed. Women are still paid less than men, minority populations are still devalued, and we still spend millions of dollars on events with a very short existence. I hope that in less than another 125 years we have moved past these social problems.