Beacon of Progress

Beacon of Progress

Beacon of Progress
perspective
ink and watercolor on paper

Completed in Boston and in Paris, Désiré Despradelle's drawings for the Beacon of Progress afford a powerful visual image of the architect's vision. The excitement and imagination coursing through the work is evident. The monument itself was to be:

"... placed on Jackson Park, the site of the World's Fair, facing Lake Michigan. It is to be connected with principal roads and avenues of the park, the chief access being from the lakeside by a maritime boulevard ... In the place of honor ... are written the names of the thirteen original colonies; and upon the stela guarded by the eagle is the goddess of the twentieth century, the modern Minerva, flanked by ranks of lions roaring the glory of America...."

Désiré Despradelle
Technology Review
July 1900

Drawings for the Beacon make extensive use of iconographic techniques. The 13 original colonies were represented by female figures, each one different from the next. An amphitheater at the base was to seat 100,000 people and sweeping piers extended into the lake for regattas. Despradelle planned elevators to transport visitors to various viewing platforms and to the beacon, which formed the summit of the main obelisk.

That the Beacon of Progress was actually intended to be built is evident in several sources. A drawing in the MIT Museum's Collection shows the results of Despradelle's calculations. The shaft was specified to be of granite, virtually solid, with some interior passages. He worked out the weight of the material per square foot, but as one of his assistants recalled, Despradelle's concept grew and grew over time, making the possibilities for masonry construction slight.

The final drawing, which is 15 feet high by 10 feet wide, attempts to capture a sense of the Beacon's scale and strength. According to one source, Despradelle dealt with the challenges presented by the project with his usual good humor. When he had finally completed the drawings, on a much larger scale than originally planned, Despradelle realized that he had not taken into account enough load bearing for the granite to accommodate the Beacon's expanded height. His solution was to "... restudy the size of the chamber--or, if there isn't enough time before the contract must be let, we shall have to put in some steel!"

Despradelle designed the Beacon with visionary appeal that captured the attention of his contemporaries. Although many critics, primarily Americans, felt it was wonderful to look at but impossible to build, others, predominantly his French countrymen who were perhaps more comfortable with grand gestures, felt that it was indeed an appropriate monument and that any technological obstacles could be overcome by the American ingenuity Despradelle was celebrating in the monument. Among the dozens of congratulatory letters he received on the project were the comments of his former patron Jean Louis Pascal, as well as letters sent by leaders in the French art and architectural communities, including Emile Vaudremer, Paul DuBois, Auguste Bartholdi, and Honore Daumet. That the French government retained two of the drawings was in itself an honor shared with few other architects.

The strength of the drawings drew a great deal of attention and had a lasting impact through exhibition and publication, despite the fact that the project was never constructed. The drawings retained by the French government were included in the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition in London. One author notes that although architecture was generally ignored by Exhibition-goers, he "always found a number of people scrutinizing those drawings by Despradelle. They seemed to weave a spell of fascination which the greatest of painters of our time failed to achieve." The Chicago Architectural Club's exhibition catalog of 1902 featured a perspective view and detail of the Beacon. The exhibition also featured the work of prominent Prairie School architects including Robert C. Spencer, Jr., Thomas Tallmadge, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Louis Sullivan. The presence of these drawings in the Club's exhibition was not only a tribute to the teacher of many of these architects, but was also recognition and understanding of Despradelle's creative vision.

In 1912, the art editor of the Boston Daily Advertiser wrote:

"No one can stand in the presence of the magnificent Beacon of Progress without a feeling of enthusiasm at the inspiring ideal, which pierces the sky, yet treads the earth. It is itself typical of Despradelle, in all his works, lofty and ennobling, yet when practice is concerned not violating possibilities."
Beacon of Progress

Comparison of the Beacon of Progress with the Great Monuments of the World
ink and watercolor on paper

Beacon of Progress

Beacon of Progress
detail
ink and watercolor on paper

Beacon of Progress

Beacon of Progress
general plan
ink and watercolor on paper

Beacon of Progress

Beacon of Progress
perspective (detail)
ink and watercolor on paper

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