Columbian World's Exposition 1893


Like many of us I am on a multi-year journey sifting through family treasures from previous generations; war records, photographs, letters from the front, audio recordings and personal artifacts that tell the tales of history, nations and institutions through the focused lens of family and friends in a way that is personal, memorable and in no small measure emotional.

Recently, while sorting a small but heavy box labeled “Coins” I came across something that speaks volumes to those of us who love the amusement business and call it home. As I turned one small coin, too small and light to be currency and not quite the right scale to be a subway token I realized that I was holding a commemorative coin from the seminal event in our collective theme park experience: the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. It literally took my breath away; how had it come to be in our family? I will never know but there it was and here we go:

In 1893, in Chicago an interesting thing happened; well actually a lot of interesting things happened but the ones that concern us happened at the World's Columbian Exposition, the first Chicago World's Fair. It’s not a stretch to say that this event marked the beginning of the modern amusement business and but for the folly of a few adventurous and intrepid souls the industry we celebrated two weeks ago at IAAPA in Orlando might never have happened.

 Let me explain.

 At the exposition, for the first time, that magical recipe of entertainment, architecture, technology, the arts, science, food and drink came together in a signature, massed event that stretched over the horizon for months and months. The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, conjured to celebrate Columbus’ stumbling on the New World some 400 years previous enshrined all the trappings of modern theme parks in an unforgettable, never-before-seen spectacle of light and experience that dazzled millions of people as they teetered on the cusp of the 20th century.

Dazzling at night, with its endless array of white lights set against the brilliance of "neo-classical" architecture the fair filled some 600 acres with more than 200 buildings centered around a long reflecting pond that symbolized the long journey of Christopher Columbus some 400 years prior. Design and development was managed by Chicago Architect Daniel Burnham; the architecture followed French aesthetics of symmetry and balance coupled with a knack for splendor that is perhaps, well, uniquely French. Dazzling and painted uniformly white, the fair became known as The White City, a blank canvas that served as the backdrop for everything from industrial exhibitions and high cuisine to salacious shows on the “midway”, a “no man’s land” of amusements strategically located to lure the unsuspecting patron from the frivolous to the meaningful; a spoonful of sugar designed make palatable the teachings of technology and lessons of science and culture.

Burnham hired master landscape architect Frederic Law Olmsted, most notable for his design of New York City’s Central Park and it is perhaps his work that makes the fair so unique. Olmsted believed in using every available natural aspect of an area as fully as possible, wrapping his treatments around features that nature had planted there already. He always worked to create a picture, a scene and in that sense he was the forefather of modern cinema, theatrical and themed design. He was a naturalist who understood that the integration of a space with the imagination of human invention was a powerful combination. One could generate emotional, visceral responses by creating an immersive space that became an experience. Like good theatre much of the effect was subliminal but had an impact on the viewer that ensured that memories were made and treasured for a lifetime. Eliciting an emotional response is the purpose of all great art and Frederic Law Olmsted was a master.

 If we reverse engineer the fair in our minds, the elements of its success become clear and look something like a template for modern parks, museums and other location-based attractions. There are multiple layers of activities, spread across a broad range of events from food to show, rides to transportation, threaded together in a contiguous design that is equal parts art and logistics creating a mesmerizing experience the leaves visitors spellbound and speechless. Spellbound. Speechless.

 If the goal of modern amusements is to engage, entertain and inspire we might do well to study this past in search of universal truths that are as meaningful and effective today as they were then. If the patina of every park is different, the underlying architecture and operating principles are the same: create an epic event with engaging spaces and experiences, speak to the masses, guide them safely through their day, dine with them, teach them, amuse them, inspire them – send them home profoundly changed with new memories to last a lifetime.