he 1893 World's Columbian Exposition left an indelible image in the minds of many visitors, one of whom was MIT professor Désiré Despradelle. Inspired by all he saw at the Exposition, Despradelle developed an idea for a colossal monument honoring American progress. It is for this unbuilt project, a visionary plan for a Beacon of Progress, that Despradelle is perhaps best known.
Désiré Despradelle was a gifted pupil of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and of the atelier Pascal. His academic career culminated in winning the first second Grand Prix de Rome in 1889. After two additional unsuccessful attempts at the Grand Prix and a stint as assistant inspector of State Buildings and National Palaces, Despradelle accepted an invitation to teach at MIT, succeeding Eugène Létang. In addition to a successful teaching career, he was also a partner in the Boston firm of Codman and Despradelle. Among the noteworthy buildings to their credit is the 1905 Berkeley Building at Boylston and Berkeley Streets in Boston, a marvel of white glazed terra cotta and steel frame construction in which the strong influence of Louis Sullivan and Chicago architecture is evident.
The commemorative Beacon of Progress was intended to be erected on the site of the Exposition. Dedicated to the advancement of Americans, whom Despradelle felt had done more to change the world in 200 years than all other nations throughout history, the Beacon was envisioned as a masonry constructed, 1500-foot obelisk, complete with meeting places, auditoria, an observatory, and a bright beacon. In his design, Despradelle completely integrated a French idealistic vision of America with his view of the American potential for political and technological advancement. The project would occupy Despradelle, and many of his MIT students, until 1899. He won numerous honors and accolades for the Beacon, including the Gold Medal for the Architecture Section of the Paris Salon of 1900. The large final elevation drawing, measuring fifteen feet by ten feet, hung on the walls of MIT's architecture studios until the early 1930s.