We’re here today with Michael Finney of the Chicago 1893 Project. Michael, thank you for being with us here today.
Hey, thanks for having me.
Let’s just start off with the idiot question: What is the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition?
So, back in the 1890s, right? They were trying to find a site within the Americas to hold a World’s Fair. After a lot of contentious jockeying between a handful of cities around the country, Chicago was selected and the event occurred on the South Side of the city in what is known as Jackson Park, what was then pretty swampy land. They had to do a bit of terraforming and build up a 600 acre parcel into basically a city within the city.
It was an opportunity for people from around the world to come to America, specifically Chicago, and feature their culture and their technological advancements. A lot of people found their way to the city for one reason or another and a few things still exist. It did have a huge impact, not only on Chicago specifically… The legacy of Chicago’s not tightly wound to that event, but it certainly was the turning point after the Chicago Fire of 1871 where the city was able to re-present itself and say, “We’re back and we’re better than ever.”
What first drew you to the Chicago World’s Fair as a subject?
I grew up around Chicago and as you’re making your way around the city and through the city it has this lasting kind of emetic presence because there are a few buildings still there, there are artworks there, there are things you run across in different places where you’ll hear the event get mentioned or the people want to say, “Oh, this was from that,” or, “This goes back to that time.” As a kid growing up in the ’90s it was like, oh, that was 100 years ago, it seems like forever. Then you get older and you’re like, it wasn’t actually that long ago, you know? More and more things start to pop out at you that are interesting or relevant to the world that we live in today. Over the course of my life there were a number of interesting things that occurred, and eventually I really just couldn’t deny being associated or affiliated or connected to the event anymore.
I had gone to Spain with family when I was a kid, and there was supposed to be another World’s Fair in Chicago, another Exposition like that, in 1993 but it failed to get off the ground but the sister site was held in Spain. I went there as a kid with my family. At the time I wasn’t drawing the connection to it being this other side of an event that didn’t occur in Chicago.
I was a musician in a past life and I ended up trying out for a band, I sent them a scratch track for vocals to a song, and they were going by the name “Columbian Exposition” at the time. At the time, you know, it was “That’s interesting, quirky name, ties to the city, we’re all from around here.” And I didn’t really think too much about it at the time.
Whenever that is happening to me, whenever I start to have these synchronicities emerging, I try to follow up with it and steer into that as much as possible.
Just more and more things started to stack up, and after I started the project then it really just kind of flooded out how much stuff was around, and I just started seeing the year and running across lucky circumstances that put me near things at just a great time to be able to learn more and collect images and talk with people and be able to synthesize that into some form of understanding and turn that into the book and documentary that are out on Amazon.
What does the Chicago 1893 Project do?
It tries to keep the legacy of the event alive. The thesis of the book and the documentary is that the Columbian Exposition was the doorstep to the 20th Century in regards to arts and culture. I do believe that. It really did kind of open everything up.
So, they’ve got 600 acres worth of swampland to clear out and build a giant exposition space. I’m sure that went about as smoothly as any civic construction project ever goes.
Well, it’s fair to argue that it went more smoothly, really. They did all this in 18 months, building the site out, not only the buildings but converting the grounds. So, if you’re familiar with Olmstead, the landscape designer… he’s a legend. Central Park being probably the crown jewel of his career. He was tasked with getting the actual gardens and walkways into shape within those 18 months. So, trees don’t grow in 18 months. And the other side of it is he also had to work around massive buildings getting constructed and was able to do that. They got all the buildings together.
They did actually delay. Because there was so much back-and-forth political jockeying to secure the event, and then also within Chicago regards to where is this thing going to go. They ended up pushing it back. So it was supposed to be the 400th anniversary of Columbus coming to America. That would mean it would have been in 1892, and it wasn’t. It was 1893. So they did actually give themselves an extra year there.
It seems absolutely amazing that given all of the delays and problems that they had, that they only missed the original dedication date by a week. They were what, a week after Columbus Day 1892 when they had the dedication ceremony?
Right, right. And when you see the pictures of that period of time, when they were kind of doing that initial opening of the grounds and dedication, there’s still scaffolding and everything’s not… It’s not totally all buttoned up.
Today we would just leave all those exposed structural elements out there and call it a day, but back then they had to cover ’em all up.
I suppose it helped getting everything up on time that most of these buildings were meant to be strictly temporary.
I think that there’s that element to it. But then also in general, the biggest buildings were really these presentation spaces where a lot of other nations and companies were responsible for filling them. The main architects that Burnham selected as director of works and set to designing and producing these buildings on the grounds, they weren’t focused too much on the interiors of those major structures. Now, a lot of the other buildings, they were. The national buildings? They were a lot smaller obviously. So that changes things by a number of factors. But they were also really ornate. Not only uniquely designed on the exterior but uniquely decorated on their interiors. There’s just a lot of really beautiful, great stuff all over the site. When you’re looking around, I’ve looked at quite a lot of pictures over the years and when you see inside of these places, how lavish some of them are in general. That is pretty incredible.
It really is astounding how much public sculpture there was per square foot of the exhibition. It really must have been quite the feast for the senses.
There are a lot of incredible artists that at that point in time participated at the event. And obviously being able to manufacture huge works that rapidly even for them was tough. So you have the MacMonnies fountain, you’ve got the obelisk, you’ve got the statue of the Republic, you’ve got artwork seemingly every probably 50 feet or something, 75′ on the grounds, there’s something to look at particularly around the Grand Basin. That to me is one of the defining pieces of this aesthetic that inhabited the space at that time. Your eyes always had something to take in and observe and be informed about. In regards to beauty and information they really strived to give people something to feast their eyes .
It’s 1893, the World’s Fair finally opens. I’m assuming it was a big hit.
It is a major attraction. It basically helps Chicago weather what was happening economically in general. There was a little bit of a downturn for a number of years, they were kind of in a recession. And Chicago was able to get through that period of time better because of how much money and work was occurring, how much money was coming in to the community as a result of the work that needed to occur there. At any given point there’s 30,000 people working on the grounds to get this thing going and launched. They are going to want to be paid, and they’re also going to be spending that money, and they couldn’t go very far. They were going to be spending that into the Chicago ecosystem.
So the fair opens, lots of well-known, renowned and famous people come out to it. There are a number of people that we know who kind of point at that event as highly influential for them or their family.
Disney, his father supposedly was a worker there and it attained legendary status for him, perhaps always keeping the idea of something like that in his mind leading up to say, Disney World or whatever.
Frank Baum, the writer of kind of drew inspiration from the White City as influence for Oz, the Emerald City. And I just think that’s fantastic. That for me is just such an incredible thing, because that brand or that particular story, that world is still fantastic to this day. And I mean fantastic in the sense that it’s inspiring fantasy, and that’s something that’s in too short of a supply.
What sort of things could people see and do at the World’s Fair when they finally got in?
The one really awesome thing, when I first really started going through these pictures and seeing that there was a hot air balloon there… I love that. Unfortunately a storm kind of wrecked it, so it didn’t survive the entire event. But it did make it through the first half. That to me, I just love the idea of flight and airships and stuff like that in the late 19th Century. I’m in the middle of the book Against the Day right now by Thomas Pynchon, and the “Chums of Chance” travel around the world in an airship and their story starts at the Columbian Exposition. =Just the idea of people, they’re not like Pinkertons, they’re more like a government agency that is just like X Files-ish. And the idea of them coming to the event in an airship is just fantastic. I love it.
We still eat foods and use products and developments that debuted at that event. There’s a couple of well-known food brands, still to this day, like Shredded Wheat; we’ve got Juicy Fruit by Wrigley’s; then you’ve got Vienna Beef hot dogs, which are a classic in the Chicagoland area; and then Pabst Blue Ribbon likes to, or at least the legend goes that they won a blue ribbon at the event whether that is true or not doesn’t much matter as much as the fact that they claim that was the birth of their brand.
Sounds like a high school jock still hanging on to his football trophies, even though he hasn’t done anything in the last 130 years.
Wasn’t there a pavilion where people could just go to gawk at pretty girls from all 50 states?
Women were on display in some capacity, and men were, and minorities, and there’s lots to say in regards to, “Is this exploitative?” And yeah, it probably is. Then again, what were these people doing before? Were they doing the same things? Did they relocate to this event to do those same things? I’m sure some of them did. It’s a case by case basis, I suppose, and we can’t go back and ask them and get a candid perspective on it. So we have to do the best we can and say this stuff did occur, and how can we produce events or include people in a higher integrity fashion now.
I find it interesting that the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis gets a lot of flak for its treatment of ethnic minorities or people from other countries and cultures, whereas the 1893 Exposition gets a little ignored. It may not help that in 1904 they literally put them in a zoo.
That’s certainly like, you know, contextualized things in a certain way, where in Chicago there was definitely an effort to create these experiences and to have people inhabiting this space to make it feel populated, properly populated with the people that projectively existed there or participated in that culture, obviously, like again, is all of that above-board? Is all of that 100% authentic? Well, no, of course not because it’s a recreation and it’s in Chicago. You just have to suspend disbelief, and for people of 2022 to go back and sit and browbeat stuff that is over and done and gone in 1893, you’re beating a dead horse. It’s gonna be tough to make any change about that. Again, I think you say, “We understand these things and we’re going to move forward and be and do better in some of these instances.
What happened to all these temporary buildings after the fair ended?
So the one… the two structures that obviously are still existence would be the Art Institute, obviously that one was meant to be permanent; and the Art Palace, what is now known as the Museum of Science and Industry, which had to be more permanent because the other countries that were shipping over their artworks for display would not allow them to be put in a temporary building that a higher risk of fire. Particularly in the shadow of 1871 and Chicago’s sort of legendary status in regards to so much of the city burning down just over 20 years earlier. So that building was obviously designed and built at higher standards than the other ones.
There are maybe half a dozen buildings that still exist in different places. The Maine state building exists in… there’s some spring water area up in Maine? […]
One of the ticket booths from the event, is in Oak Park, IL. Which is, once again, architecturally kind of a mecca because there are a bunch of Frank LLoyd Wright buildings there. His connection, to kind of spin this back around, is that Frank Lloyd Wright studied with Louis Sullivan who was responsible for designing the transportation building at the 1893 World’s Fair.
Why do you think this World’s Fair is the one people remember? It wasn’t the first World’s Fair the United States had ever had, and it certainly wasn’t the last. But no one remembers the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition; if they remember the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair it’s probably because they saw Meet Me in St. Louis; and if they remember the Knoxville World’s Fair it’s from a joke on The Simpsons. Why is this the one that sticks in people’s heads?
I think it’s just the right time for America. The United States was not a world and global player through the 1900s.
All of a sudden, the country had finally kind of stretched across the continent, we were filling in some gaps and creating states out of territories, and it had kind of established itself as a nearly complete thing, or it seemed to be complete. And it was easy to project wonder and hope on to America.
It’s just this really magnificent, polished experience that was very rapidly created and allowed people to live in a fantasy. Obviously we want those things. We must. Which is why we like video games and movies and theme parks and all these other things. For the people of that era and that time, it did all of those things.
They promoted this event by sending out photos of this stuff. Just imagine seeing pictures of this location. It was impossible to be jaded out the way we are about the Magic Kingdom of Disney World or something. Disney World seems like such a given, it has such object permanence, but in 1893 the idea of there being this White City that’s inside another city, that’s just incredible. And I think that it was really the first time that something at that scale had been experienced by so many people.
Over 25 million people went to this thing. I imagine that it would have been tough to exist in 1893 or 1894 without this being the conversation piece generally, in most communities around America because so many people had gone to it or participated in some aspect of it. There were people from all over the country and the world coming here to work for the 18 months prior to the event, in addition to the run of the event.
Every state was at this thing, so people from every state were coming here. They were building their structures. They were illustrating their industry and commerce and bringing all these unique things that were geographically relevant to them to Chicago for the people to witness.
I just feel that’s probably why this particular event stands out. I haven’t seen any of the other ones achieve the level of grandeur that this thing did. Is the Ferris Wheel better than the Eiffel Tower? I don’t know. But a lot of cities have Ferris Wheels and only a couple of cities have Eiffel Towers. We don’t necessarily go to the summer fair, your state fair or theme parks or amusement parks and say, “I want to ride an elevator to the top of their Eiffel Tower.”
You say that, but I’ve been to the top of the Eiffel Tower at King’s Dominion in Virginia.
Well, I’m not saying don’t. I’m just saying, that’s not necessarily a strong meme inside the amusement and theme park industry.
As a kid, I think most people have like, that first experience with a Ferris Wheel and riding one and being that far up and looking at the world. There are lots of very tall buildings and you can do that, but it it is different on a Ferris Wheel.
I think people really don’t grasp the scale of the one that was constructed for the World’s Fair, because that was huge.
And it was the first one. People had not ever had that experience. And that was remarkable for them. And the cars were huge. I think they put 60 people in one of the cars? Just imagine being in a Ferris Wheel with 59 other people.
What was the whole trip? It was like 30 minutes or something? You were really going for a ride. Not just two turns on the Ferris Wheel and you’re done.
And it was a great view. Aerial views are in short supply at that point in time.
Now, I think I saw on your Twitter that you’re working on an augmented reality version of the World’s Fair?
For the last year, I’ve been doing this next phase of thing, which is basically, a wealth of research into the design schematics and elevation drawings. I’ve been chasing this stuff down across the Internet and in museums and facilities around the city, when I have the time and the opportunity. And what we’ve been doing is recreating the buildings around the Grand Basin right now. So not the entire grounds, but at least the main major structures around what was known as the Grand Basin.
So there are, you know, a lot of buildings there that are very large and we’ve got most of them done now at a 1:1 scale and very soon, actually, so we’re recording this in April and I know that it’s not going to be released until May, but just in general, before the end of this month, which is April, I’m going to release the first look at one of the buildings, and then next month I will release a promo video for the project in general that’ll kind of talk about the trajectory of what it is about. Which is to bring these buildings back to life so that people can experience them at the size that they were.
Because to me, we’re not going to rebuild this thing, but to me I think that it’s a real shame that these were temporary structures, but at the same time, being able to reproduce them digitally means that we can maybe roll back some of the ephemerality of that event, the outcome of the event, which is to say, most of these buildings actually burned down after the event closed. So they did exist on the South Side for a number of years and then, unfortunately, kind of fell into disrepair. People weren’t maintaining things and there were different things going on down there, and eventually a couple of fires really trashed out the site. None of that exists any more.
The thinking is, that’s a real shame and I think that when we look at modern architecture, it doesn’t necessarily convey the same meanings or aesthetics or human touch that some of these older structures did, just because they are more tied in to symbolism and the mathematics of balance, really. That’s something that I feel is generally lacking when I see some things.
Now, that’s not to say that all modern architecture is bad, it certainly isn’t, there’s some fantastic stuff happening with materials and design. Then again, there’s some eyesore out there and the ability to spin up these buildings digitally inside of your phone or through augmented reality lenses, at least gives you the opportunity to perceive the scale and and get a look at what they were like. Because there are many pictures, but it’s not the same looking at a picture, no matter how big it is, compared to being able to walk along the side of a building that, if it was 700 feet long, you can walk along those 700 feet in reality if you wanted to.
Now, these things can be scaled to any size, really, but the majesty of it for me when I’m working with the prototypes that we have now, is that you’re able to really perceive that scale and you’re able to get up close and look up at these things and just get a feeling about being in their presence that people haven’t had in almost 130 years.
Is there any chance of just getting a straight up virtual reality version for those of us who aren’t getting to Chicago any time soon?
You will not have to come to Chicago to experience this. It will be anywhere in the world. So that will be very cool. We will not have to be bound by the city to be able to experience this stuff. That is important to me. And as far as virtual reality experience? I’d love to do something like that that requires a lot more heavy lifting. In that sense, do I want to do it? Absolutely. Am I going to be able to get that done soon? I don’t know if that’s in the cards for this year.
Is there anything you wanted to mention or raise?
We never really got into what I would consider to be one of the most esoteric pieces of World’s Fair lore. This is obviously not mainstream thinking, but there’s some people that believe the World’s Fair sites are kind of these pre-existing locations from an ancient empire and there was a mud flood and stuff like that… Have you looked into that?
No, this is largely news to me. It sounds insane.
It’s hilarious because it’s so evidently not true. There are little components of truth within this idea on the surface, but the actual idea is not true.
So the empire, they call it Tartaria or something like that. The idea that there was this empire that stretched across North America, and these sites were their cities that were there before, and they were uncovered and then used for these events as an excuse to then destroy these sites after the events. That is such knotted thinking, but I love it.
That has to be some real tough work, to somehow believe that there were these giant Neoclassical cities spread all across North America, and yet Native Americans, the French, the English, the Spanish just completely edited those out of our history books and covered that up. And no one living in Chicago for 200 years thought to mention the giant city on the shores of Lake Michigan.
It’s fantastic. I love conspiracies. I love that kind of weird sort of lines of thinking. Why not absorb that stuff and see what these people have to say?
It’s just a fantastic bit of modern lore that is being actively constructed. There are some people that will occasionally engage with some of my accounts about the project and bring that stuff up and post these pictures and stuff like that, and it’s fantastic. Please always do that. I love looking at this stuff and I love listening to nutty ideas.
I’ve been thinking, “What if I had the Chums of Chance, their airship, The Inconvenince, from Against the Day floating in the sky over the Grand Basin?” To me that would just be fantastic. It ties right in. It’s another piece of alternative history. That might be where we need to manufacture wonder in 2022, in these digital layers of content existing over the real world.
I like that idea, that you just happen to be looking at the app on April Fool’s Day and all of a sudden it’s a very different space.
If people are looking for more information about the Chicago 1893 Project, or the World’s Fair in general, where can they find you on the Internet?
You can find me and connect with any number of my projects via my website, which is michael-finney.com, and it’ll direct you to the social media presence. So the Chicago 1893 Project exists on Instagram, it has a Facebook page, and most predominantly on Twitter.
Michael, thank you for talking with us today.
Thanks for having me, David.
- Michael Finney
- 1893 Chicago’s Columbian Exposition: Arts and Culture on the Doorstep of the 20th Century book
- 1893 Chicago’s Columbian Exposition film
The Chicago 1893 World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition has made frequent appearances on the podcast, featuring in the lives of “Diamond Jim” Brady, Dr. Cyrus Reed Teed, and John Alexander Dowie. (And it’s also the birthplace of pressed pennies!)