Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Chicago Century of Progress

It is 80 years since the city of Chicago hosted the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair. As World Fairs go, in popular esteem it ranks well below the New York event in 1939 where the sheer volume of commercial exuberance left a legacy that has been analysed at length in an extensive literature. And yet, the architectural achievements of the Chicago Fair were impressive, being held together by an extravagant colour scheme devised by the Broadway set designer, Joseph Urban. Urban deployed a memorable palette of brilliant colours, perhaps inspired by his work for the Ziegfeld Follies. He died the day before the Fair opened on May 27th. 1933, the same day that Roosevelt’s New Deal was signed into law. 

As a pageant of multi-coloured Streamline Moderne it was a highly effective antidote to the economic gloom of the Great Depression. Enormous effort went in to developing tempting visions of a brighter future such as the Home of Tomorrow exhibit and a range of concept cars from most of the major manufacturers. The Burlington Route railroad brought its streamlined Zephyr to the show and Union Pacific displayed its M-10000 train. Most of the pavilions were designed by an in-house team of local architects with a brief to avoid pastiche and step boldly into the glorious future. One exception was the General Motors Pavilion which was the work of favoured GM architect, Albert Kahn. In line with the theatricality of Urban’s colour scheme the buildings were planned for a short life and mostly constructed from plywood and Masonite, Sheetrock and Maizewood with profiled metal cladding. When the Fair closed the site was rapidly cleared and now functions as a city park. 

The advertising and postcard imagery comes from my collection, including the final souvenir card – one of many thousands for which visitors must have posed. Prohibition remained in force until December 1933, by which time the Fair had closed – so what was in the foaming glass? And whence came the Bonzo dog cut-out? Other cultural landmarks of 1933 included the debut of King Kong, the Lone Ranger and Disney’s Three Little Pigs, not to mention the opening of the first Krispy Kreme doughnut store. 

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