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Museum of Science and Industry

2010 May 12
by Caroline Nye Stevens

5700 South Lake Shore Drive

CNS 2010

Just sixty years after its founding as a city and twenty years after its conflagration, Chicago was chosen over St. Louis, New York and Washington D.C. to host the World’s Columbian Exposition. Held in 1893, it celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering the New World (one year late). Over the course of six months 27 million people visited the World’s Fair, making it the largest tourist event this country has ever seen. Nicknamed the White City, it’s what put Chicago on the map as a world-class city. Just as quickly as the White City was built, it was destroyed. Luckily one of the fair’s grandest buildings remains – the Palace of Fine Arts – today the Museum of Science and Industry.

Daniel Burnham, the leading planner of the fair, chose the classical Beaux-Arts style as the unifying theme for all of the main buildings. Located on the northern end of the fair grounds in Jackson Park, the Palace of Fine arts was similarly designed in this Classical style that was inspired by ancient Greek and Roman architecture. Perfectly symmetrical and covered in Classical ornament, the building is above all characterized by its sense of grandeur. The most popular entrance of the building faced the lagoon and was reached by gondolas. Charles Atwood, the fair’s chief architect, designed the Palace of Fine Arts. He was regarded as one of the most respected architects of classically designed monumental buildings of the time. The Palace of Fine Arts further heightened his reputation. Occupying five acres of land, with 600,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space, it was a large building. With a length covering 1,145 ft, it is as long as the 100-story John Hancock Tower is tall.

The White City was intended to be a temporary city. Therefore most of the buildings were built with wood and clad in staff (an easily molded material made out of hemp, horse hair and plaster: stronger than stucco and cheaper than plaster). The Palace of Fine Arts was the exception. Because it housed the finest art from around the world, the Fine Arts building had to be fireproofed. It had brick walls and concrete floors making it the fair’s strongest structure. The fair was such a success that once it ended the city wanted to preserve its memory with a museum that would contain the many abandoned artifacts brought here for the fair from around the world. Because it was a semi-permanent structure, the Fine Arts building was the natural choice to house the museum. With a $1 million endowment from Marshall Field, in 1906 it was named the Field Museum of Natural History.

The building was not built to last forever, and it wasn’t long before the Field Museum was looking for a new home. The roof was continuously leaking, and the exterior staff walls deteriorating. Between 1920 and 1923 The Field Museum moved to its present home at the South end of Grant Park. Left unoccupied, the deterioration of the building quickened, and in 1921 the South Park Board voted to demolish it. A group of concerned citizens took action and with great determination eventually convinced the city to restore it, making the building one of Chicago’s first great preservationist victories.

After numerous ideas were considered for the space Julius Rosenwald, chairman of Sears Roebuck and Co., proposed and financed a Museum of Science and Industry. In the late 1920’s restoration and renovation of the building commenced. Graham Anderson Probst & White reconstructed the exterior in limestone, trying to keep as many original features as possible. The interior was a different story however. Renovated by the architectural firm of Shaw Naess & Murphy, they opted for a more modern Art Deco design that would not distract from the exhibits. This is what remains today.

There’s hardly a remaining trace of the White City that dazzled the world in 1893 and captures our imaginations today. The Museum of Science and Industry stands alone in Jackson Park as a reminder of the greatest fair ever held on American soil.

Jackson Park, CNS 2010


Though few remnants remain, a walk through Jackson Park can be a fun exercise in imagining what once was a spectacular city. The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers help towards this goal with their White City Revisited walking tour. In the meantime watch this quick animated video of the fair recreated. And of course, the Museum of Science and Industry is an awesome museum worth a visit.

5 Responses
  1. Andrew Rosen permalink
    May 12, 2010

    Caroline! Very interesting and informational article about the city that I live so close to, yet know so little about! Wishing you the best!

  2. Nancy Kullman permalink
    May 12, 2010

    Have you read “The Devil in the White City?” It’s about designing and building the 1893 Columbian Exposition… and a serial killer active at the same time. Interesting and very creepy (the serial killer part).

    • May 12, 2010

      I second what Nancy said! Devil in the White City is a MUST-READ for anyone interested in learning about the exciting details of the 1893 World’s Fair. And you can easily skip over the scary serial killer parts if that’s not your cup of tea.

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