May 12, 2017

The Forward-Looking Architecture Of The Century Of Progress Exposition

  • By: Jared Foretek
Century of Progress Administration Building

photo by: COP_17_0001_00002_001, Century of Progress Records, 1927-1952, University of Illinois at Chicago Library.

With its modern design, the Administration building—the headquarters for the fair—was meant to set the standard for the other exhibition halls. The two figures on either side symbolized the themes of the exposition: science and industry.

When planning began in the 1920s, the 1933 World's Fair was envisioned as a showcase of American economic and innovative strength. By the time it opened, though, it took on a very different role; providing hope to Americans enduring the worst depression the country had ever seen and stimulus for an economy in desperate need.

It did both with remarkable success. It was so popular, in fact, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt—who saw it as a powerful driver of consumer spending—lobbied the organizers to open it again in 1934. They obliged, and by the time it closed for good in the fall of 1934, almost 40 million people had visited.

Built just south of downtown Chicago, The Century of Progress Exposition showcased the history and future of science and industry, setting out to restore faith that American ingenuity could lead the nation past it economic turmoil. Of course, it was meant to sell things as well. After all, how could the average fairgoer return to cleaning dishes by hand after seeing the new General Electric dishwasher in George Fred Keck's House of Tomorrow?

But organizers also sought to define the next generation of American architecture and design. Unlike past fairs, a central architectural committee set the aesthetic for the expo's buildings. Aside from the ethnological exhibits, they shared a colorful, futuristic design (the fairgrounds were known as "Rainbow City") that included early features of the Modernist movement that would come to dominate mid-20th century architecture.

Shortly after the fair, the buildings were torn down. But thanks to the Chicago Collections—a consortium of organizations whose members include the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Public Library, the Chicago History Museum, and others—hundreds of images of the fair are available for viewing.

Below are some of our favorites, but you can check out the whole collection here.

Century of Progress Aerial View

photo by: COP_17_0001_00003_006, Century of Progress Records, 1927-1952, University of Illinois at Chicago Library

An aerial view of the early stages of construction. The Travel and Transport Building is in the foreground, while Soldier Field and downtown Chicago can be seen in the distance.

Century of Progress Construction

photo by: COP_17_0024_00000_028, Century of Progress Records, 1927-1952, University of Illinois at Chicago Library.

One of the fair's buildings being erected.

Century of Progress Building Construction

photo by: COP_17_0025_00000_019, Century of Progress Records, 1927-1952, University of Illinois at Chicago Library.

The Agriculture building, constructed to showcase the past, present, and future of agriculture, is seen here while under construction.

Century of Progress Adler Planetarium

photo by: Kaufmann & Fabry Co., COP_17_0001_00005_007, Century of Progress Records, 1927-1952, University of Illinois at Chicago Library.

The Adler Planetarium told the story of contemporary astronomy. Its "Zeiss" projector was the only in the United States. As the official guidebook puts it, "With this instrument is staged a spectacular drama of the heavens."

Century of Progress Skyride tower and Hall of Science

photo by: COP_17_0010_00305_015, Century of Progress Records, 1927-1952, University of Illinois at Chicago Library.

The Sky Ride (to the left) consisted of two 625-foot tall towers spanning a lagoon. "Rocket cars" carried fairgoers for 40 cents a ride.

Century of Progress Hall of Science seen from Skyride

photo by: COP_17_0009_00288_020, Century of Progress Records, 1927-1952, University of Illinois at Chicago Library.

The Hall of Science (as seen from the Sky Ride tower) was a major hub of the exposition.

Century of Progress Ford Exhibit

photo by: COP_17_0009_00294_002, Century of Progress Records, 1927-1952, University of Illinois at Chicago Library.

With 11 acres of space, Ford Motor Company had the largest corporate exhibit at the fair.

Century of Progress House of Tomorrow

photo by: Kaufmann & Fabry Co., COP_17_0002_00026_005, Century of Progress Records, 1927-1952, University of Illinois at Chicago Library.

Designed by George Fred Keck, the House of Tomorrow was a futuristic model home featuring the newest in home technology and Modernist, function-first architecture.

Century of Progress Federal Building

photo by: COP_17_0010_00307_014, Century of Progress Records, 1927-1952, University of Illinois at Chicago Library.

The Federal building, whose three towers represented the three branches of government, was home to exhibits showcasing the histories, initiatives, and accomplishments of 10 government agencies.

Century of Progress Sears Roebuck and Co. Building

photo by: COP_17_0004_00161_001, Century of Progress Records, 1927-1952, University of Illinois at Chicago Library.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. had their windowless building positioned prominently on the Avenue of Flags. The building had a restaurant, a small medical area, and exhibits on retail and merchandising.

Jared Foretek is an editorial intern at the National Trust. He enjoys historic train stations, old bars, and interesting public spaces.

jforetek@savingplaces.org

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