Illinois: Museum of Science and Industry and Midway Plaisance, Chicago Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Museum of Science and Industry contains, in its almost twenty acres of floor space, an array of participatory exhibits relating to science and technology. The building, originally built in 1893 as the Palace of Fine Arts at the Columbian Exposition of 1893, was designed in the Greek classic style by Charles B. Atwood and reconstructed between 1929 and 1940. The Midway Plaisance, six hundred feet wide and a mile long, also originally part of the Columbian Exposition, is now a park area that serves as the southern gateway to the University of Chicago.

Site Office

Museum of Science and Industry

57th Street and Lake Shore Drive

Chicago, IL 60637

ph.: (773) 684-1414

fax: (773) 684-7141

Web site: www.msichicago.org

By the last decade of the nineteenth century, the United States was ready to show the Old World the glories and accomplishments of the New, and what better occasion could there be for such an exposition than the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage of discovery?

Leading citizens in Chicago saw this as an opportunity to showcase their vibrant city of a million and a half people in the center of the nation. Chicago was then sixty years old, and only twenty-one years removed from the Great Fire that had both destroyed its mercantile heart and allowed it to start anew.

The Columbian Exposition

The Columbian Exposition of 1893, however, proved to be far more than a celebration of the past. It became a watershed, bringing together the nations of the world as no other event had done, glorifying the accomplishments of humanity and spotlighting futures that could be. This “White City” stood in sharp contrast to the reality of the burgeoning cities of the time and, while reflecting its era’s prejudices, still marked great strides toward improved human understanding.

The concept of a “world’s” fair originated in the nineteenth century, with the first such fair in London in 1851. The popularity of London’s Crystal Palace led to other fairs, Chicago’s being the fifteenth. The best known of the European fairs to that time was in Paris in 1889 and featured the Eiffel Tower. The United States had previously hosted a fair, in Philadelphia in 1876, to mark the nation’s centennial.

A bill committing the U.S. government to provide financial support for the celebration was introduced in 1889 by Senator Shelby M. Cullom of Illinois. His failure to designate a site for the fair led to a battle among Chicago, New York, Washington, and St. Louis. Chicago boosted ample open parks and modern transportation facilities, and had also secured five million dollars to support the fair; in February, 1890, the city emerged triumphant (and with a new nickname–the “Windy City”–coined sneeringly by New York Sun editor Charles A. Dana in reference to the volume of claims made by the city’s boosters). Chicago’s rivals said a fair of the scope the city envisioned could never be built, but observers of the finished product considered it a triumph of concerted energy, ambition, and enthusiasm.

Chicago in 1893

Chicago at that time was a center of commerce, attracting innovation in industry and art. At the same time, it was a brawling, boisterous city, noted for corrupt government and a weakness for sin. By 1893, the city boasted 5 percent of the nation’s millionaires; more than fifty separate rail lines run by thirty-two different railroads; the Union Stockyards; five hundred miles of street railroads; the world’s first “skyscrapers” (a term coined by the Chicago Tribune), including the twenty-three-story Masonic Temple, built in 1891 and for years the tallest commercial building in the world; concert, lecture, and opera halls including the landmark Auditorium theater, office, and hotel complex; the nation’s most famous settlement house, Hull-House; seven thousand saloons; almost one thousand brothels; vice districts with names like the Black Hole and Hell’s Half Acre; a murder rate eight times that of Paris; and a mayor, Carter Henry Harrison, whose reelection in 1893 was taken as a sign that Chicago would be a “wide-open” city for the fair.

This “Black City” was as much an attraction for the visitors who came to Chicago as the “White City” of the fair. The planners had free rein to create the kind of world they had always dreamed of, and the contrasts between the real and the ideal were striking: Where the contemporary American metropolis was chaotic and disorganized, the exposition was planned and orderly; while the real city was private and commercial, the ideal was public and monumental; where Chicago was sooty and gray, the White City was clean and sparkling. One observer noted that “inside the exposition grounds all was glitter, gaiety and the celebration of progress; outside, sullen men shuffled the streets, slept in parks and bitterly faced a bleak future.”

Funding the Exposition

Even before Congress finalized the choice of Chicago to host the fair, civic leaders had begun planning. The Chicago Exposition Company had raised the funds needed for its five million-dollar guarantee. To pick a site for the fair its directors turned to the renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who more than two decades earlier had been retained to plan a complex of parks south of the central city. Olmsted recommended Jackson Park, a flat, desolate, sandy stretch of land on Lake Michigan seven miles south of downtown. Olmsted and his partner, Henry Codman, planned to use the lake to complement the fair, dredging a system of navigable waterways and using the material removed to contour the site. The lagoon developed at that time, with its central island designed as a quiet retreat from the bustle of the fair’s exhibit areas, remains a feature of Jackson Park.

The fair officials picked Chicago architects Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root as the fair’s chief of construction and consulting architect, respectively. Working with Olmsted and Codman, they drew up preliminary plans for the fair in September, 1890. They recommended that the planners invite other architects to participate and, in January, 1991, the most noted architects in the country joined them for the first of a series of planning meetings that Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the fair’s consulting sculptor, called “the greatest meeting of artists since the fifteenth century.” While marred by Root’s death on January 16 from pneumonia, the meetings produced the guidelines for the fair. They also produced a spirit of dedication and cooperation that resulted in an integration of architecture, sculpture, painting, and landscape never before seen.

Planning the Exposition’s Buildings

Though Chicago had emerged as the leading center for modernist architecture after the Great Fire, and though Root had visualized a complex of designs and colors, the architects decided the major buildings of the exposition would be in the neoclassical style and the dominant color would be white. They grouped the “Great Buildings” in a “Court of Honor” around a basin, and while few specific criteria were set, it was agreed they would have a uniform cornice height of sixty feet. In the end, the Great Buildings created a vision of celestial elegance, both by day and when lit at night. The lone use of color among them was the Transportation Building, designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan in shades of red with an intricately etched, multitiered golden door.

The decision to look to the past for inspiration, and the impact of that decision on American public architecture after the fair, would prove a topic of heated discussion for decades. Edmund Mitchell, an Englishman who spent eight months at the fair, wrote that it was universally allowed that the “City of White Palaces in Chicago has never had a compeer as regards architectural magnificence”; at the other extreme, Louis Sullivan lamented the loss of a unique opportunity to showcase modernism, calling the fair an “appalling calamity” architecturally: The damage it wrought would last for a half century.

Work commenced toward an opening date of October 20, 1892, later changed to dedication ceremonies when the actual opening of the fair was postponed to May 1, 1893.

Workers were faced with a site of 533 acres in Jackson Park, plus the mile-long, six hundred-foot-wide wooded land of the Midway. Converting the main fair site–described as a treacherous morass that was liable to flooding, spotted with stunted, unshapely trees, and inadequate to bear the weight of ordinary structures–into a place of beauty required a massive effort. The work itself was an attraction for thousands of people who paid twenty-five cents each to watch the preparations.

Construction Begins

The transformation began in January, 1891. More than one million cubic yards of earth were dredged and more than sixty acres of waterways created. The areas where buildings would stand were raised several feet, and land where grass, flowers, and shrubbery would be planted was covered with loam. The lakefront was paved and a pier constructed. Seventeen miles of railroad track and an intricate network of streets were laid out. At the peak of construction, there were more than forty thousand workers.

Work went quickly, and despite delays caused by weather, materials shortages, and transportation problems, when the fair opened all but a few minor attractions on the main grounds were ready for the lines of people anxious to pay their fifty-cent admissions.

The exposition drew exhibits and buildings from forty-seven U.S. states and territories, fifty-one nations, and thirty-nine colonies. It was truly a World’s Fair, unlike fairs held earlier in Europe, where rivalries led host countries to limit their invitations. The United States was still unencumbered by such geopolitical considerations.

The fourteen Great Buildings, with a total floor space of sixty-three million square feet, were surrounded by some two hundred smaller buildings. The Great Buildings cost eight million dollars, and the total cost of the fair, not including private exhibits, was twenty-eight million dollars. The builders used more than eighteen thousand tons of iron and steel and more than seventy-five million board feet of lumber.

The Fair Opens

The fair was a showcase for the use of electricity. The grounds required three times the lighting power then in use in Chicago and ten times that of the Paris fair held four years earlier. Water plants pumped sixty-four million gallons of water daily through twenty miles of water main, and the sewage system treated six million gallons per day, similar to the requirements of a city of 600,000.

Yet, despite these prodigious numbers, the fair was an illusion–a dream city with architecture and ornamentation meant to dazzle for a few months and then disappear, leaving behind only a gleaming memory. The Great Buildings and the statuary were built largely of staff, a mixture of plaster, cement, and a fiber such as hemp, that lasts at most a few years if painted regularly.

The Architecture of the Fair

Only one of the Great Buildings was permanent, the Palace of Fine Arts; as the showcase for an invaluable collection of paintings and statuary lent by the nations of the world, it needed greater resistance to the elements and the danger of fire and was therefore built chiefly of brick and cast iron. That building, designed by Charles B. Atwood of Kansas City, was considered by many the finest at the exposition. Poet Edgar Lee Masters years later wrote:

Atwood with justice may be said to have won the architectural palm of the whole Fair. . . . Its projecting pediments, here and there supported by caryatids, reminded the beholder of the Temple of Victory on the Acropolis. The building as a whole was so much of a miracle that it did not pass with the closing of the Fair . . . and is now one of the genuine glories of Chicago.

Largest of the Great Buildings and, indeed, the largest roofed building ever constructed at that time, was the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, which which at 1,687 feet was longer than the Sears Tower is tall (1,454 feet) and had a width of 787 feet, greater than a Chicago city block (660 feet). Its floor space could have enclosed the U.S. Capitol, the Great Pyramid, Winchester Cathedral, Madison Square Garden, and St. Paul’s Cathedral with room to spare, and it alone housed more exhibits than had been on display at the entire Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.

Among the smallest of the Great Buildings was the Woman’s Building, which was considered undistinguished but which generated great interest because it was designed by a woman and highlighted the groundbreaking participation of women in the fair.

Dedication and Opening

The dedication ceremonies for the exposition had originally been planned for October 12, 1892, but were postponed so President Benjamin Harrison could attend an elaborate Columbus Day celebration in New York. While, as it turned out, Harrison was still unable to attend the Chicago festivities because of illness, the ceremony was a notable success. It started on October 20 with a civic parade that included a broad range of ethnic groups and ended on the grounds of the fair the next day with lavish ceremonies attended by between 100,000 and 500,000 people, who listened to hours of orations, invocations, hymns, and salutations.

Opening day six months later, May 1, 1893, was overcast, but the enthusiasm of onlookers was undampened. Dignitaries, including the Duke of Veragua, the sole living descendant of Columbus, and Spain’s Infanta Eulalia, arrived in twenty-three carriages that passed through the Midway Plaisance to the Administration Building, where they mounted a platform constructed to hold three thousand people. After appropriate prayers and speeches, President Grover Cleveland turned a key activating a huge engine that unfurled flags and pumped water to fountains throughout the fair. Paid attendance that day was 128,965.

From opening day through the fair’s closing at sunset on October 30, more than twenty-seven million people attended. At the time, based on the 1890 census, the entire population of the United States was only sixty-three million. The largest single day’s attendance was more than three-quarters of a million on October 9, Chicago Day. The fair was open daily, a decision made after great debate with those who wanted it closed on Sunday. Those who fought the religious traditionalists argued that Sunday was the only day on which poorer people could see the fair and that they would benefit as much from its ennobling appeal to the imagination as from traditional Sunday observances.

Visiting the Fair

Visitors reached the fair by boat, by carriage, and by rail, either on the tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad or on the new elevated railroad powered by the innovation of an electrified third rail. When they arrived they found themselves in a clean, decorous island isolated from the troubles of labor unrest, anarchists, crime, and the Panic of 1893, which began with a stock market crash five days after the fair opened. The economic stimulation of the fair insulated Chicago from the effects of the panic, and only after its gates closed would the city feel its full impact.

Visitors rode the movable sidewalk, equipped with chairs, that ran the length of the Casino Pier. They wondered at the magnificence of the Peristyle, with its forty-eight columns representing the states and territories. They marveled at the Grand Basin, with its Columbian Fountain, the largest in the world, and the Statue of the Republic and the Court of Honor that surrounded it.

They listened to music from bands led by conductors such as John Philip Sousa; from symphony orchestras under the direction of Theodore Thomas, who established the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as the first permanent orchestra in the nation; from a 2,500-voice choir; and from native artists of participating nations. They tasted delicacies from around the world.

They examined the original contract made between Columbus and Queen Isabella and replicas of Columbus’s three caravels and of the Monastery of La Rabida, where Columbus stayed before receiving an audience with the queen.

They saw a replica of a thousand-year-old viking ship, the largest cannon in the world, and the largest canary diamond in the United States. They saw the huge engines that pumped water throughout the fair grounds; Thomas Edison’s new Kinetoscope, forerunner of the motion picture, and his updated phonograph; the most recent sewing machines; the latest in office equipment, including adding machines, cash registers, and typewriters; and the largest telescope in the world (later donated by Charles Yerkes to the University of Chicago’s observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin). They saw too such oddities as models of the Liberty Bell made of oranges, lemons, and grapefruit, and a map of the United States done in pickles. They witnessed the first long-distance telephone call from the Midwest to the Atlantic seaboard; learned how cheese, glass, leather, and silk were made; and admired outstanding examples of livestock and produce. In all, there were more than sixty-five thousand exhibits, ranging from the sublime to the bizarre and highlighting the most up-to-date developments of the age.

Sideshows and Exhibits

The Midway Plaisance, named from the French word for pleasure, was the playground of the fair and the first ever such “sideshow,” and the name “midway” has been used ever since to describe the central avenue at a carnival or amusement park. Here were housed restaurants, entertainments, rides, and exhibits from Ireland, Lapland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Turkey, Algeria, Egypt, Hawaii, the South Seas, China, and Central Africa. The Midway was the home of Little Egypt and her controversial danse du ventre, or belly dance, and of champion boxer Gentleman Jim Corbett.

In the center of the Midway stood the crowning glory of the fair and the exposition’s answer to Paris’s Eiffel Tower. When planning this centerpiece, Burnham sought more than just size. “Something novel, original, daring and unique must be designed and built if American engineers are to retain their prestige and standing,” he said. The solution was George Ferris’s revolving wheel, which carried forty passengers in each of thirty-six cars to a height of 264 feet. During that summer, 1,750,000 people rode the Ferris Wheel.

The exposition was more than just exhibits. Held in conjunction with the fair, in the not-quite-finished home of the Art Institute of Chicago at the center of the city, was the World Congress Auxiliary. With the motto Not Matter, but Mind, the auxiliary convened in mid-May and continued until October 28 a series of meetings that examined every issue of the day. Some 700,000 people heard nearly 4,000 speakers deliver more than 6,000 presentations in programs organized by the 225 divisions of its principal departments: Women’s Progress, the Public Press, Medicine and Surgery, Temperance, Moral and Social Reform, Commerce and Finance, Music, Literature, Education, Engineering, Art, Government, Science and Philosophy, Social and Economic Science, Labor, Religion, Sunday Rest, Public Health, and Agriculture.

These programs were surprisingly inclusive for the time. While African American and Native American involvement was minimal, women’s issues received broad play and the World’s Parliament of Religions brought together representatives of almost all the world’s religions (the Anglicans were conspicuous by their absence, but an array of smaller sects were conspicuous by their presence). While the congresses did not necessarily reach conclusions, they succeeded in airing a wide range of views and defining the direction that many of these debates would take in ensuing years.

Closing of the Fair

As the fair approached its conclusion, attendance rose and plans proceeded for closing ceremonies as elaborate and festive as its dedication. Two days before they were to take place, however, a disgruntled office seeker shot Mayor Harrison at his home. The assassination turned the celebration funereal.

Less than three months after the fair closed, arsonists set fire to the Peristyle and other buildings on the lakefront, and in July, flames swept through the Court of Honor. Most of the buildings were torn down and salvaged for scrap. In 1896, Scientific American reported that among those still standing were was “the once beautiful German Building in dilapidation . . . [and] the sham convent of La Rabida [which became a cardiac hospital for children]. The Goddess of Liberty still occupies her lofty pedestal, with her cap gone and several of her fingers missing.” Salvaged steel was returned to the furnaces; ornamentation was removed and sold as souvenirs; half a million square feet of glass panes went into greenhouses and cornices; and statues went to museums and universities.

The Museum of Science and Industry

Four of the buildings still exist intact, but only one remains in Jackson Park. The Maine Building was moved to a resort in Poland Springs, Maine; the Dutch House is in Brookline, Massachusetts; and the Norway Building is in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin. The fourth building, the Palace of Fine Arts, housed the Field Columbian Museum until that institution moved north to Grant Park in 1920 and became the Field Museum of Natural History. With the support of Julius Rosenwald, chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Company, the building was reconstructed between 1929 and 1940 to house the Museum of Science and Industry. (It was originally to be called the Rosenwald Industrial Museum, but Rosenwald insisted that the name be changed so as to dedicate the museum to the public, and not to himself.) Limestone replaced staff; a new roof was built; a basement was dug; and two additional floors, 140 permanent Ionic columns, twenty-four caryatids, twelve figures above the door to the central pavilion, and a 120-foot-high central dome were added. In 1933, the museum’s north and south courts and central dome were opened to the public.

Jackson Park was refashioned based on Olmstead’s landscape design. The lagoons became small-craft harbors; the wooded island was developed for strolling and picnicking; and the Midway Plaisance was transformed into a tree-lined boulevard.

Legacy of the Fair

The Columbian Exposition had affirmed America’s new position at the forefront of industry; it had brought together nations, individuals, and ideas in a spirit of cooperation; and, above all, its ideas and beauty inspired. It spurred the growth of the City Beautiful movement, of which Burnham became a driving force, frequently working with Olmstead and several of the architects of the Great Buildings. He completed plans for Washington, D.C., Cleveland, San Francisco, Manila and Baguio in the Philippines, and Chicago. The boulevards and landscaping in many American cities can be traced to his influence.

Scientific advances and industrial applications such as electric transit systems and the use of electric lighting for decoration were also a legacy of the fair.

Women’s involvement in the fair, spearheaded by Bertha Honore Palmer as president of the Fair’s Board of Lady Managers, greatly advanced the cause of suffrage and other issues. The extensive participation of foreign nations helped promote international cooperation and understanding, and numerous international business deals were reportedly struck by exhibitors impressed with each other’s wares.

The exposition became a major part of thirteen novels and probably figured in the design of L. Frank Baum’s Emerald City of Oz. Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony was composed to be performed at the fair, but financial problems prevented its debut there. Katherine Lee Bates was moved by the exposition to write “America the Beautiful.”

The Chicago Tribune, in its farewell to the fair, summed it up as

a little ideal world, a realization of Utopia, in which every night was beautiful and every day a festival, in which for the time all thoughts of the great world of toil, of injustice, of cruelty, and of oppression outside its gates disappeared, and in which this splendid fantasy of the artist and architect seemed to foreshadow some far away time when all the earth should be as pure, as beautiful and as joyous as the White City itself.

For Further Information
  • Bertuca, David J. The World’s Columbian Exposition: A Centennial Bibliographic Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
  • Bolotin, Norman, and Christine Laing. The World’s Columbian Exposition. Washington, D.C.: Preservation Press, 1992. Replete with pictures and description of the fair as it might have looked to a visitor.
  • Burg, David F. Chicago’s White City of 1893. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1976. Goes into great detail on the art and ideas of the fair, and quotes substantial portions of the speeches delivered at the ceremonies and the Congress Auxiliary
  • Masters, Edgar Lee. The Tale of Chicago. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1933. References to the fair in this book are interesting, especially for Masters’s prose.
  • Muccigrosso, Robert. Celebrating the New World. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1993. Looks at the fair in the context of the world of the 1890’s.
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