Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Death in Chicago

Cambridge, March 5, 2013

The original model for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago was Venice, not Beaux-Arts Paris or Renaissance Rome.  At least, it was Venice that John Root and Harry Codman went back to for references, as they drew the final plan of the exposition towards the end of 1890.  Not that you would have noticed when the fair opened in May of 1893. But, by then Root and Codman were both dead.

Much has been made of the spectacular murders associated with the Chicago Exposition, from Dr. H. H. Holmes gruesome trail of corpses to the assassination of Carter Harrison, Sr., the mayor of Chicago, just the day before the closing events.  But, there are a number of other deaths, not of them involving foul play as far as we know, that may have had a profound effect in the design of the fair and in the future of the American City for the following couple few decades (yes, yes, take all this with a grain of salt.)

John Wellborn Root was Daniel Burnham's partner, one of the most gifted designers of his generation and the architect initially in charge of the buildings in the Chicago Exposition.  We don't have much evidence of his intentions for the project, but there is an unfinished sketch that shows a rather asymmetrical articulation of arches, gables and turrets of varied proportions, most likely polychrome if we are to read it in a Richardsonian key.  But a few months after he drew this sketch, Root was dying of pneumonia at age 41.  Henry Sargent Codman was the right hand man of the aging Olmsted.  As he was still working on the landscape of the fair, Codman died after an appendectomy; he was not yet 30.

We can also add Joseph M. Wells to our list of casualties. Less known that our other characters, he was the chief draftsman in the office of McKim, Mead & White at the time of the Boston Public Library.  As Charles McKim was shamelessly pillaging Labrouste's Biblioteque for inspiration, the erudite Wells kept insisting in going back to the source, Alberti's Tempio Malatestiano.  He seemed to had had nothing but contempt for McKim's banal use of the classical language.  Offered partnership in 1889, Wells is reported to have rejected it, refusing to "put his name to so much damned bad work."  A year later he was dead at age 37, and McKim was free to do whatever he pleased with his Beaux-Arts and white plaster.

Of course, the looming absence from the design of the Chicago World's Exposition was Henry Hobson Richardson, the dominant figure in American architecture after the Civil War, who died from kidney failure in 1886, months short of his 48th birthday, and would have certainly had something to say when it came to this most prominent, age-defining project.

I suspect that the sixty gondolas brought from Venice to Chicago for the occasion--complete with their Venetian gondoliers dressed in red jackets and stripped breeches--may have felt a little ill at ease in the midst of the 170 acres of calcimite-coated neo-Renaissance columns, arches and pediments of the fair.

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