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1893 World’s Columbian Exposition

1893 World’s Columbian Exposition

Also known as the Chicago World's Fair

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition gave rise to the City Beautiful movement and led to the creation of numerous art societies seeking to obtain legislative means for aesthetic regulation in New York City.

People: William Vanderbilt Allen, Albert S. Bard, Evageline Blashfield, Daniel P. Burnham, Henry Ives Cobb, Robert G. Cooke, George W. Ferris, Benjamin Harrison, Carter Harrison, Sophia Hayden, Richard Morris Hunt, Charles McKim, Frederick Law Olmsted, George B. Post, Louis Sullivan, Nickola Tesla 
Places: Central Park
Above: Bird's-eye view of exposition grounds, with canal in foreground, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893; Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago revolutionized city planning and architecture. Moreover, the legacy of the fair’s influence can be seen in many American cities today. Historically, world fairs functioned to illuminate grand architecture, art, and new inventions. Prior to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the United States had contributed to the exhibitions held in London and Paris but had yet to demonstrate its “technology and cultural prowess” to its European counterparts.1

The inspiration for the World’s Columbian Exposition can be attributed in part to the success of the Paris expositions in 1878 and 1888, combined with the success of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.2 In 1888, the United States Congress passed a bill to allow for an exposition celebrating Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. Several major cities competed to host the exposition, including New York, Washington, D.C., St. Louis, and Chicago. New York City boasted its prowess as the highest-populated cosmopolitan city. Unfortunately, New York City lacked the space to hold the fair. Some proposed hosting the exposition in Central Park, however most New Yorkers vehemently opposed this idea.3 On April 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison announced Chicago as the winner for the location of the fair. The city was the most optimal host due to its central location and abundant park space. Chicago was also a major transportation hub, equipped with 24 railroad terminals.4

The Fair took place in Jackson Park and Midway Plaisance, containing over 630 acres. Daniel P. Burnham served as the director of the exposition, and Frederick Law Olmsted designed the landscape elements of the fair. Olmsted had recently completed the Greensward Plan for the design of Central Park, and his reputation as a premiere landscape architect influenced reputable architects including Richard Morris Hunt, Charles McKim, George B. Post and Henry Ives Cobb to contribute to the Fair.5 Burnham decided on a classical design for the exposition, featuring Romanesque and Renaissance buildings composed of white stucco. The fair also sparked the popularization of classical architecture in American cities characterized by the City Beautiful movement. This style would permeate building design for years to come, leading progressive architects such as Louis Sullivan to remark, “the damage wrought by the World’s Fair will last for half a century from its date, if not longer.”6 Adler and Sullivan had designed the Transportation Building for the exposition in a modernist style. Sophia Hayden, the first woman to receive a degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, designed the Woman’s Building – it was the only structure designed by a woman at the fair.7

The buildings housed 65 exhibits that showcased new technology in addition to obscure fodder for entertainment. For instance, the Agricultural Building, designed by Charles McKim, featured a 1,500 pound chocolate Venus de Milo.8 In the Electricity Building, Nickola Tesla introduced his invention of the fluorescent light bulb.9 Furthermore, Tesla devised the Alternating Current system to illuminate the “white city.” In an effort to outdo the Eiffel Tower (premiered at the 1878 Parisian Exposition), George W. Ferris built a ferris wheel, which served as the fair’s most popular attraction.

The planning of the fair was met with several calamities and inclement weather that in turn delayed the official opening of the exposition. Although the dedication ceremony occurred on October 21, 1892, the Fair did not officially open to the public until May 1, 1893. The Exposition ended October 30, 1893 on a somber note two days after the assassination of Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison.10

Many of the buildings, though built as temporary structures, were later destroyed in a fire a year after the fair. One of the few buildings that have survived is the Science and Industry Museum. Although the physical manifestation of the exposition has been lost, the legacy of the fair has endured in terms of city planning, architecture, literature, music, and art.

The City Beautiful Movement emerged in response to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. The movement was characterized by the classical architecture and landscape designs seen at the fair. Once visitors returned to their cities, and saw an unorganized and gritty urban landscape in comparison to the "white city," they realized that it was essential for the public welfare to beautify the city. This led to massive public building projects and the erection of war monuments in many American cities including St. Louis, Detroit, and Washington, D.C.

In New York City, the urban infrastructure was a chaotic mess, compounded by an influx of immigrants who lived in poor tenement houses and worked in factories. Nonetheless, the City government lacked legislative control over aesthetic elements of the City. Accordingly, the movement led to the creation of numerous art societies seeking to obtain legislative means for aesthetic regulation in the City. This idea eventually led to the preservation of historic structures for the public good with the passage of the Bard Act and the New York City Landmarks Law.

One of these civic organizations to emerge in the aftermath of the World’s Columbian Exposition was the Municipal Art Society. Upon returning home from Chicago after the World’s Fair, prominent New York artists and visitors realized the potential for New York to gleam as a beacon for the arts and urban design. On a more fundamental level, artists took with them the idea that art was not just for the elite, but was to be shared with the public.11 These artists, including William Vanderbilt Allen and Evageline Blashfield decided to form the Municipal Art Society. Their mission was to promote the idea that public art was for the benefit of the public and promoted an enhanced state of being.12

An individual that played a pivotal role in the City Beautiful Movement in New York City was Albert S. Bard, a lawyer with an affinity for the arts. Like his contemporaries, the World’s Fair influenced his thinking that a city could be regulated for aesthetic purposes. He joined the Municipal Art Society in 1901, joined its board in 1911, became Secretary in 1912 and President in 1917.13 Bard’s influence on the City Beautiful Movement would lead to drafting the Bard Act, which enabled municipalities to pass laws for aesthetic regulation of private property.14

One of the first issues that advocates of the City Beautiful Movement confronted was the profusion of billboard advertisements in New York City. By the 1870s, large billboard advertisements dotted the urban landscape.15 Efforts to control billboard signage began in 1896, when the Parks Commissioner passed a law removing billboards from public parks.16 Despite this new law, by 1911, New York City was reported to have 3.8 million square feet of billboard advertisements.17

Art societies, including the Municipal Art Society and the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, began to use billboard regulation as way to beautify the City. The Municipal Art Society, along with Bard, worked on legislative measures to regulate billboard placement in New York.18 In 1913, the Mayor set up a commission to find methods for billboard regulation. It was called the Billboard Advertising Commission of the City of New York. Robert G. Cooke, head of the Commission, claimed that the advertisements "rob the people of their rightful heritage of natural beauty.”19 Eventually, the 1916 Zoning Resolution worked to set up rules for billboard signage on public property.20 The problem, however, appeared to be aesthetic regulation of private property for the benefit of the public. The initial efforts waged by Bard and the Municipal Art Society served as a "progenitor" of the Bard Act, eventually leading to the passage of the Landmarks Law.21

In addition, the Bard Act in many ways owes its existence to the City Beautiful Movement.22 The fundamental idea of this movement was that the livability of cities was essential to the health, welfare, and safety of the people. By beautifying the city, the government was providing a benefit to the public, overriding private interests. The Bard Act was passed in 1956, and permitted local municipalities enabling legislation to pass laws that regulate the aesthetics of the city. The "police powers" were extended to mean that the regulation of the physical environment promoted the health, safety, and welfare of the people.

Furthermore, the passage of the Bard Act paved the way for the New York City Landmarks Law because it gave the power to the City to pass legislation for aesthetic regulation. Historic buildings were now seen as enhancing city blocks and promoting a charming feel to neighborhoods. Preserving historic structures would soon be included in these aesthetic regulations when the New York City Landmarks Law was passed. This idea was predicated on the "police powers" in which preserving structures of cultural and historic significance was providing a service to the public by enhancing the aesthetic environment of the city.23

  • D. Arnold photographic collection from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition
    Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Drawings & Archives
    Columbia University
    1172 Amsterdam Avenue #3
    New York, NY 10027
    Tel: (212) 854-4110
    Email: avery-drawings@libraries.cul.columbia.edu

  • Ryerson & Burnham Libraries
    Art Institute of Chicago
    111 S. Michigan Avenue
    Chicago, IL 60603
    Tel: (312) 443-7292
    Email: rbarchives@artic.edu
Norman Bolotin and Christine Laing, The World’s Columbian Exposition: The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992), page 1.
Erik Larson, Devil in a White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America (New York: Crown, 2003).
Stanley Appelbaum, The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893: A Photographic Record (New York: Dover Architectural Series, 1980), page 7.
Erik Larson, Devil in a White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America (New York: Crown, 2003).
”The Fair Closes in Doom: A Memorial Service to Mayo Harrison,” The New York Times, 31  October 1893.
Gregory F. Gilmartin, Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 1995).
Christopher Gray, “Streetscapes/Billboards; The Battles Over Outdoor Ads Go Back a Century,”The New York Times, 17 June 2001.
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 26.
Christopher Gray, “Streetscapes/Billboards; The Battles Over Outdoor Ads Go Back a Century,”The New York Times, 17 June 2001.
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 26.
Ibid, page 26.
Staff, “A Landmark Decision,”The New York Times, 20 December 1975.