Saturday, December 12, 2015

World's Columbian Exposition Moves Forward -- December 12, 1890

A big day in Chicago on this date, December 12, back in 1890, when directors were named and a plan formulated for choosing the architects for the World’s Columbian Exposition that would open just 30 months later.  The fact that committees were just being formed and architects named at this late date is a reminder of just how quickly this monumental event came together.

A board of four men – Daniel Burnham, John Root, Frederick Law Olmsted and Abraham Gottlieb recommended four plans for choosing the designers for the fair’s grand buildings.  The first three names are legendary, but it took a lot of searching even to find Gottlieb’s first name.  It turns out that he served as the Chief Engineer of the American Bridge Company and the director of the American Society of Civil Engineers form 1872 until his death in 1894.

Abraham Gottlieb
As an aside, Gottlieb died in a way that an architect or engineer could not have scripted any more fittingly.  On February 9, 1894 at the age of 57 he attended a meeting at the office of the Illinois Steel Company in the Rookery on LaSalle Street.  After the meeting he took the elevator to the ground floor, where he “fell unconscious and died before medical aid could reach him.”  [Journal of the Association of Engineering Societies, Vol. XIII, May 1894]  

Interesting . . . that out of the four men who met this day in 1890, two of them, Gottlieb and John Root, would not live to see the completion of the fair.  John Root had only another month to live after this December meeting, dying of pneumonia on January 15, 1891.

In any event, the men recommended four possibilities for the selection of architects for the fair.  They were:

(1)   The selection of one man to whom designing of the entire work should be entrusted.
(2)   Competition made free to the whole architectural profession.
(3)   Competition among a select few.
(4)   Direct selection.

The first option was ruled out even though it would allow a coherent and uniform design of the many buildings that would be at the heart of the fair.  The conclusion was inescapable, though, that no one man could design what was needed in the time that remained before the fair was to open.

The question of time also ruled out for the second alternative.  Setting up a competition, naming judges, allowing time for the preparation of proposals and plans, and the actual judging would consume far too much time.  Moreover, it was uncertain that any architect of merit would enter a competition in a project that many viewed as preposterous, if not impossible.

Even a limited competition – the third proposal, basically, ran into the same set of time constraints.

Almost by default, the fourth proposal was recommended and accepted and a process was begun almost immediately “to select a certain number of architects, choosing each man for such work as would be nearly parallel with his best achievements . . . The honor conferred upon those selected would create in their minds a disposition to place the artistic quality of their work in advance of the mere question of emolument; while the emulation begotten in a rivalry so dignified and friendly could not fail to be productive of a result which would stand before the world as the best fruit of American civilization.”  {Chicago Tribune, December 13, 1890]

With $987,560 in the bank the process of building what would become the greatest fair in the history of the world in Chicago began in earnest on this date.  Dedication Day, October 21, 1892, the date marking discovery of Columbus was less than two years away.

Dedication Day parade, October 21, 1892

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