Lisa D. Schrenk: Complains about the undeserved neglect of Chiacgo's Century of Progress International Exposition





Among American world's fairs there have been two standouts. Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, besides introducing the Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jack, and alternating current, radically changed the course of American architecture, dooming the idiosyncratic styles of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright and inspiring a seemingly endless procession of neoclassical buildings — libraries, museums, banks, even office towers. New York's 1939 World's Fair, with its "World of Tomorrow" theme, claimed a place in the public imagination that it has never relinquished — in part because its twin architectural icons, the Trylon and the Perisphere, have lived on in photographs, paperweights, salt-and-pepper sets, and a whole antique store's worth of similar keepsakes.

But many of the other fairs are largely forgotten. The Pan-American Exposition (Buffalo, 1901) is probably most often recalled as the site of President William McKinley's assassination. The Sesquicentennial Exposition (Philadelphia, 1926) and the Louisiana World Exposition (New Orleans, 1984) are chiefly remembered for having gone bankrupt. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis, 1904) is now thought of mostly as the setting for a movie Judy Garland made 40 years later, Meet Me in St. Louis.

Lisa D. Schrenk thinks the Century of Progress International Exposition deserves better. Ms. Schrenk, an assistant professor of architecture and art history at Norwich University, is the author of a handsomely illustrated new book about the fair, which was held in Chicago in 1933 and 1934 — a century after the city's founding — and which racked up almost 49 million visits. The fair's highlights included the General Motors Building, which housed a 200-person assembly line that produced Chevrolets, and the Hiram Walker and Sons Canadian Club Cafe, where visitors could watch young women bottling whiskey (Ms. Schrenk owns an unopened bottle, among other fair souvenirs). A medical exhibit featured preserved bodies sliced both horizontally and vertically. Visitors to the Sky Ride, a huge suspension bridge, could either take elevators up the two 620-foot towers or ride "rocket cars" from one tower to the other, enjoying a spectacular view of the fairgrounds and lagoon below....

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