When Chicago was the center of the world ...

When Chicago was the center of the world ...

The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition presaged many of the most important innovations that continue into the 21st century, including the widespread use of electric lighting, new discoveries in science, and the forerunners of both the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry.

And, perhaps most importantly, Wrigley's Juicy Fruit Gum. Or, for hipsters, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

The White City was meant to shine a light on Chicago, and it opened a year late because of the effort to create that splendor. The fair celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' landing in the New World in 1492.

"Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair" will open Oct. 25 and run through Sept. 7, 2014, at the Field Museum in Chicago — offering a taste of the wonders of 120 years ago.

Exhibition project manager Paola Bucciol says the fair helped make the Windy City a center of trade and scientific interest.

The exposition covered more than 600 acres with 65,000 exhibits. Visitors came from 46 nations to see the expo, which featured nearly 200 new neoclassical buildings, as well as canals and a great pool to invoke the Atlantic Ocean.

The Chicago Columbian Exposition was, in large part, designed by architectural giants Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted. It was the prototype of what Burnham and his colleagues thought a city should be.

It was designed to follow Beaux Arts principles of design, French neoclassical principles based on symmetry and splendor.

It drew more than 25 million visitors to Chicago about 20 years after The Great Fire ravaged downtown. The city would become known for the skyscrapers that replaced shabby wooden buildings, and every major city would try to repeat its Beaux Art architectural display.

The expo area was called White City because many of the buildings, never meant to outlast the exhibition, had whitewashed plaster exteriors.

Skyscraper pioneer Louis Sullivan designed the now-lost Modern Transportation Building. And the Ferris Wheel, the first ever, dwarfs the one now on Navy Pier.

The fair also brought about the creation of the Field Museum, which originally was to memorialize the fair. That original building is lost.

A surviving building, once the Palace of Fine Arts, is now the Museum of Science and Industry. The World's Congress Building became the Art Institute of Chicago.

Bucciol said items from the Field Museum's collections that have rarely — or never — been exhibited in the past 120 years are the highlights.

She said her team spent countless hours exploring the nooks and crannies of the museum to find dusty original souvenirs of the fair, as well as geological and biological specimens.

"It was very enjoyable," she said. "This is such an exciting topic, one of the great events in the history of Chicago."

Visitors will be able to see relics such as tickets from 120 years ago, as well as programs, taxidermy and trade objects that have spent more than a century in obscurity.

"The selection was really hard to make because there were so many beautiful things," Bucciol said.

She is particularly fond of a minute chunk of meteorite. The "cursed" Elbogen meterorite was discovered in 1400 in the Czech Republic. It was cut into chips and sent to various museums, along with a legend of a "cursed count" who was transformed into the rock.

Not everything can last for generations. Nobody thought of the written programs as anything but ephemera.

"Daniel Burnham said the building were not supposed to last a century, in fact, not longer than six years," Bucciol said.

(Burnham's next project was planned to be Altgeld Hall at the University of Illinois, but he had conflicts with the planners, and UI Professors Nathan Ricker and James McLaren White actually designed it.)

But Burnham's buildings live on in our national hymn. The "alabaster cities" mentioned in "America The Beautiful" referred to Chicago.

The University of Chicago, built in the Jackson Park neighborhood, recalls the fair in its alma mater song:

"The City White hath fled the earth,

But where the azure waters lie,

A nobler city hath its birth,

The City Gray that ne'er shall die."

That undying but gray city now is lit by lights that were a new sensation in 1893.

Nikola Tesla demonstrated a series of electrical effects at the fair, and other electrical pioneers competed to impress audiences.

The fair also influenced pop culture.

Popular dancer Little Egypt (Farida Mazar Spyropoulos) gave America the sensual belly dance that became hootchy-kootchy dancing, paving the way for future burlesque performers and strippers.

Quaker Oats, Hershey's chocolate products and Aunt Jemima debuted there. Champagne made by the Urbana Wine Company (of New York) flowed like water.

"There are so many things because the fair was meant to serve so many purposes, from education to entertainment to commerce," Bucciol said. "The more we were studying it, the more we discover it was a turning point for same many innovations."

If you go

What: "Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair," opening Oct. 25 at the Field Museum in Chicago

When: The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day of the year except Christmas Day. The exhibit runs through Sept. 7, 2014

Where: 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive

Tickets: Included in both Discovery and All Access passes to the museum; can be purchased at fieldmuseum.org


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