Century of Progress (Chicago, 1933)

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Century of Progress (Chicago, 1933)

Taking place during a "golden age" of world's fairs, Chicago's 1933-34 Century of Progress International Exposition marked the prevalence of modern architecture and was notable for its colorful nighttime lighting. Century of Progress commemorated the one hundredth anniversary of the incorporation of the City of Chicago with exhibits highlighting scientific discoveries and the changes these discoveries made in industry and everyday life.

The fair opened on May 27, 1933, when the lights were turned on with energy from the rays of the star Arcturus. The rays were focused on photoelectric cells in a series of astronomical observatories and then transformed into electrical energy which was transmitted to Chicago. Under the direction of general manager Lenox R. Lohr and president of the Board of Trustees Rufus C. Dawes, the fair covered 427 acres (much of it landfill) on Lake Michigan immediately south of Chicago's downtown area, from 12th Street to 39th Street (now Pershing Road). Today, Meigs Field and McCormick Place occupy this site. Originally planned to close in November 1933, the fair was extended through 1934 because of its popularity and to earn enough money to cover its debts. Century of Progress was the first international fair in American history to pay for itself. The grand total of attendance was 48,769,227.

The fair's most recognizable buildings, the Hall of Science and the Transportation Building typified the linear, geometric Art Deco style which was the trademark of this world's fair. The outstanding feature of the Transportation Building was its domed roof, suspended on cables attached to twelve steel towers around the exterior. Also notable were the pavilions of General Motors, Chrysler, and, added in 1934, the Ford Motor Company. The House of Tomorrow was designed using technologically advanced concepts like electrically controlled doors and air that recirculated every ten minutes. The controversial "Rainbow City" color scheme of Century of Progress dictated that buildings be painted in four hues from a total of twenty-three colors. Although the colors were restricted to ten in 1934, this still was quite a contrast from the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 when all the buildings were white. At night, the Century of Progress buildings were illuminated with white and colored lights which made the effect even more vibrant. In 1934, the coordination of color schemes throughout the fairground helped people make their way through the grounds.

The Midway, with its rides and attractions, was one of the most popular places at the fair, as was Enchanted Island, an area set aside for children. Youngsters could slide down Magic Mountain, view a fairy castle, or see a play staged by the Junior League of Chicago. The Belgian Village, which many exhibiting countries imitated during the second year of the fair, was a copy of a sixteenth-century village complete with homes, shops, church, and town hall. The Paris exhibition included French restaurants, strolling artists, and an "English Village." The Sky Ride, a major landmark of Century of Progress, transported visitors 218 feet above the North Lagoon in enclosed cars supported between two 628-foot steel towers. Recreations of the cabin of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the first permanent settler of Chicago, and Fort Dearborn, built in 1803, depicted Chicago-area history where Michigan Avenue crosses the Chicago River in present-day downtown Chicago.

Although three buildings (the Administration Building, the Fort Dearborn replica, and the golden Temple of Jehol) were temporarily left intact after the fair's demolition, today only Balbo's Column remains on its original site east of Lake Shore Drive at 1600 South (opposite Soldier Field). A gift of the Italian government, this column was removed from the ruins of a Roman temple in Ostia. It commemorates General Balbo's trans-Atlantic flight to Chicago in 1933.

—Anna Notaro

Further Reading:

A Century of Progress Exposition Chicago 1933. B. Klein Publications, 1993.

Findling, John E. and Kohn E. Findling. Chicago's Great World's Fairs (Studies in Design and Material Culture). Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1995.

Linn, James Weber. The Official Pictures of a Century of Progress Exposition Chicago 1933. B. Klein Publications, 1993.

Rossen, Howard M. World's Fair Collectibles: Chicago, 1933 and New York, 1939. Schiffer Publishing, 1998.