Christopher Columbus was in the news yesterday. Roughly five hundred years ago–we’re talking 1492–he sailed the famous ocean blue and arrived in the Americas. Cristoforo Columbo, as he’s known back home, is still a street you can sail down in countless Italian cities (depending on the traffic). Pride is easy to have and hard to swallow. The story of America’s indigenous people is the part of history more likely to occupy people’s Columbus Day than the arrival of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria.
But to an earlier age and to many still, Columbus was a hero. Four hundred years after his landing–we’re talking more recent history now, 1893–the people of Chicago decided to put on a grand ole fair to commemorate Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. The World’s Fair of 1893, as it became known, was a knock-out success. Grand basins were dug. Statues gilded. Ambitious buildings were hammered into place. Mr. Ferris built a wheel. The Midway, the part of the city now down south, near Hyde Park and eventually, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie house, became the fashionable place for your promenades. They didn’t know Sinatra, but you can “bet your bottom dollar” they had “the time of their life” back then–in Chicago.
That event has shaped the city in countless ways. One of its architects, Daniel Burnham, would go on to build many of Chicago’s most iconic early modern buildings. Within a decade, he was being given permission to lay out a street grid for the city–the one still used. And most Chicagoans will tell you they know the “secret” history of the Palace of Fine Arts; it’s one of only two buildings still standing from the fair, now filled with awe-struck nieces and nephews (and their uncles!) as the Museum of Science and Industry. Even the Lady Republic statue is still around, in a “miniature” form; taken down after the fair–and lost–a smaller version of her was commissioned in the early 20th century. It’s standing in Jackson Park.
As a historian, as a Chicagoan, as a reader of The Devil in the White City, I know a lot of the legacies of the World’s Fair. But until last night, there’s one I didn’t know. I left St. Louis yesterday to fly up to the University of Chicago for a talk on lost monuments and urban histories and–this will be absolutely unbelievable to people, I know, but it’s true–I forgot all the history about where I was going. The city of Chicago has been the farthest thing from my mind these past few days; I’m here to talk about the emperor Constantine and ancient Rome and Constantinople, and I’m leaving for another building that was made by a Chicago’s World’s Fair architect, the Charles McKim-designed American Academy in Rome, later this week. So I completely missed the obvious. Today, October 9, is officially “Chicago Day.” It marks the occasion back in 1893 when the World’s Fair first opened. And this I knew; the World’s Fair is the third of the four stars on the city of Chicago’s iconic blue, white, and red flag.
Did a boy who grew up here ever dream he’d come back and give a talk, as a grown-up, in the “city of the big shoulders”? Yes. I just never thought I’d be speaking about it on a day filled with so much meaning for Chicago. (Chicago, my hometown!)