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Phase 2 – 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition

Phase 2 – 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition
by Julia Bachrach

Rising from the ashes of the 1871 Great Fire, Chicago was selected as the site for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.  Olmsted helped select the location of the fairgrounds. Stressing that views of Lake Michigan should provide the backdrop for the fair and noting the unfinished state of Jackson Park, he recommended holding the exposition there. 
Olmsted designed the fairgrounds in collaboration with a young associate, Henry Codman, and Chicago architects Daniel H. Burnham and John Wellborn Root.  The designers explained that after making many sketches, “on a crude plot” of a “large scale, the whole scheme was rapidly drawn on brown paper” and that this plot “contemplated as leading features of design:”1

 “That there should be a great architectural court with a body of water therein; that this court should serve as a suitably dignified and impressive entrance hall to the Exposition, and that visitors arriving by train or boat should all pass through it; that there should be a formal canal leading northward from this court to a series of broader waters of a lagoon character, by which nearly the entire site would be penetrated, so that the principal Exposition buildings would each have a water, as well as a land frontage, and would be approachable by boats; that near the middle of this lagoon system there should be an island, about fifteen acres in area, in which there would be clusters of the largest trees growing upon the site; that this island should be free from conspicuous buildings and that it should have a generally secluded, naturally sylvan aspect.”2

A group of highly talented architects and artists designed the buildings and sculptures of fair.  Most structures rendered in a classical style and painted white to further unify the fairgrounds

Olmsted wanted to keep the Wooded Island free of buildings or other objects.  He felt that the calm “naturalness” would “serve as a foil to the artificial grandeur and sumptuousness” of other parts of the fairgrounds.3  Despite this intent, there were many requests for pavilions and other amenities on the island.  With these pressures, the designers asked themselves “which of all the propositions urged” would have “the least intrusive and disquieting result?”4

One of the requests for a pavilion on the Wooded Island came from the Japanese government;.  The proposal was to build a structure inspired by an ancient Phoenix temple.   Olmsted and the other leading designers decided that the elegant and simple Japanese Pavilion known as the Ho-o-den would not interfere with the natural appearance of the island. 

During a 6-month period in 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition dazzled an estimated 27 million visitors.  The fairgrounds had always been planned as a temporary installation.  Beginning in January of 1894, a series of fires destroyed many of the fair buildings.  Later that year, the Chicago Salvage and Wrecking Company was hired to demolish most of the remaining structures.


Olmsted, Frederick Law. "The Landscape Architecture of the World's Columbian Exposition, p. 20.



4  Ibid.