World's Columbian Exposition Image Map

In the context of the development of the tall office building, the architecture of the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, with its dominant classical themes, appeared to some observers to be regressive rather than progressive. The Exposition provided America with an opportunity to demonstrate its cultural equality to Europe. A number of American visitors were captivated by what they saw at the Exposition and took the architecture and planning models back home with them. However, some American and European critics saw the gleaming white buildings as a betrayal, or at least a negation, of recent American accomplishments vis-à-vis the tall office building. Skyscrapers, with their intendant style, were what many had expected to see. Louis Sullivan, one of the best known of these critics, wrote:

"Meanwhile the virus of the World's Fair, after a period of incubation ... began to show unmistakable signs of the nature of the contagion. There came a violent outbreak of the Classic and the Renaissance in the East, which slowly spread Westward, contaminating all that it touched, both at its source and outward.... By the time the market had been saturated, all sense of reality was gone. In its place, had come deep seated illusions, hallucinations, absence of pupillary reaction to light, absence of knee-reaction-symptoms all of progressive cerebral meningitis; the blanketing of the brain. Thus Architecture died in the land of the free and the home of the brave.... The damage wrought by the World's Fair will last for half a century from its date, if not longer."

Louis Sullivan
The Autobiography of an Idea (1956)

But not all work at the Exposition was classically derived. Although the buildings in the Court of Honor maintained this appearance, other structures were not required to adhere to the classical canons. Sullivan's own work for the Transportation Building illustrated many of his architectural points and was anything but monochromatic. The dome of William LeBaron Jenney's Horticulture Building was a structural tour de force. Henry Ives Cobb's Fisheries Building also attracted a great deal of attention for its massing, Romanesque detailing and wriggling-fish motif. Other Exposition buildings designed by MIT alumni/ae included the Women's Building by Sophia Hayden Bennett, the Vermont Building by William Welles Bosworth, and Joseph Lyman Silsbee's West Virginia Building. These diverse architectural styles combined to create visual excitement and inspire many who attending the Exposition.

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