From Swamps to Parks: Building Chicago’s Public Spaces
The Museum of Science and Industry was built as the Palace of Fine Arts for the World’s Columbian Exposition. This photograph documents the building’s construction, circa 1892. Photograph by C.D. Arnold. Chicago Public Library, C.D. Arnold Photographic Collection, Volume I, Plate 46c.
Johanna Russ and I are shown here standing in the section of the exhibit that explores the history of the fieldhouse, a building type invented in Chicago’s parks. Handmade toys in the vitrine between us came from a toy lending library in one of the fieldhouses.
When Chicago first began shutting down last spring due to COVID-19, I was in the midst of co-curating an exhibition entitled “From Swamps to Parks: Building Chicago’s Public Spaces.” I worked on this project with the Chicago Public Library’s Jo Russ, a talented archivist who oversees the parks collection there. Although the exhibit was delayed, I am thrilled to announce that “From Swamps to Parks” recently opened in the Harold Washington Library’s 9th-floor exhibit hall. As the Chicago Public Library has enacted careful procedures to protect patrons from the spread of disease, I hope you’ll have a chance to go visit soon. I will also be providing free public programs in connection with the exhibit. These include a virtual presentation on December 2, 2020, at 6:30 p.m. In this program, I will highlight some of the fascinating materials and themes covered by the exhibit. Please register if you can attend.
“From Swamps to Parks,” explores the tremendous vision, effort, and innovation that it took to create many of the city’s favorite public spaces. It also reveals how generations of Chicagoans have used these park sites which are among the most beloved places in our city today. The exhibition draws from myriad archival materials that the Chicago Park District (CPD) transferred to the Chicago Public Library a few years ago.
Ed Uhlir showing artifacts in the sub-basement vault. From “Hidden Treasures: A Cache of Historic Blueprints Could Usher in Another Golden Age for Chicago’s Parks,” Chicago Tribune, March 22, 1987.
It is so exciting that the Chicago Public Library has become the steward of this important collection of over 200,000 archival drawings, plans, photographs, and documents. This amazing resource would not exist, if not for the foresight and perseverance of Ed Uhlir, an architect who worked for the Chicago Park District for 25 years and went on to spearhead the creation of Millennium Park. Some of the most valuable items in the collection had been hidden away for decades in a sub-basement vault beneath Soldier Field that Ed “discovered” in 1987.
Left: Chicago Public Library’s Special Collections Reading Room. Right: One of the many storage cabinets that house the Chicago Park District collection behind the scenes at Harold Washington Library. Photos courtesy of Chicago Public Library.
I was very fortunate because in the late 1980s, Ed’s discovery prompted him to create a new position of park historian. He hired me to fill this role, which turned into my dream job of nearly three-decades. One of my many duties was to manage the remarkable collection. During the 2010s, CPD officials wisely decided to transfer most of these materials to the Chicago Public Library. I spent a couple of years working closely on this effort with Jo Russ and Morag Walsh of the library’s Special Collections and Preservation Division. Through grants from the Parkways Foundation and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelly Foundation, we were able to hire professional firms to catalog and digitize all of the drawings and photographs and to move these materials to their new home. These grants also allowed for the conservation of a selection of the most significant drawings in the collection.
Galleries of Fine Arts, World’s Columbian Exposition: Sheet, No. 7, Detail of central part north and south elevations, Daniel H. Burnham, Charles B. Atwood, 1891. Chicago Public Library, Chicago Park District Archive, Drawing CPD409N.
A large set of enormous architectural drawings for the Palace of Fine Arts—the building that would become the Museum of Science and Industry—were among the CPD treasures that had been hidden away for years. These drawings were so dirty and deteriorated that the Chicago Public Library archivists didn’t even want to unroll them for fear of further damage. The exhibit highlights the conservation of these drawings and even includes one of the detailed elevations, a drawing that has never been on public view in the past.
Finished Palace of Fine Arts, 1893. Photograph by C.D. Arnold. Chicago Public Library, C.D. Arnold Photographic Collection, Volume III, Plate 42.
The Palace of Fine Arts was the work of Charles B. Atwood (1848-1895), who served as Chief Architect for the World’s Columbian Exposition under Daniel H. Burnham, the fair’s Director of Works. In designing the Palace, Atwood took inspiration from the ancient Erechtheion in the Acropolis of Athens, Greece.
Old Palace of Fine Arts, showing Caryatid detail, 1935. Chicago Public Library, Chicago Park District Photograph 046_023_015.
Meant to be temporary structures, the World’s Fair pavilions were built of staff, a compound of plaster, hemp, and horsehair. But the Palace of Fine Arts differed from other buildings because it had a brick and steel frame beneath its ornamental staff exterior. This was done to provide fire protection for the irreplaceable artworks that would be displayed in the building. After the fair, when Burnham and others decided to retain one pavilion as a permanent reminder of the exposition, the Palace of Fine Arts was the obvious choice because of its internal structural system. Department store magnate Marshall Field donated $1 million for the project, and in 1894 the Palace of Fine Arts reopened as the Field Columbian Museum.
Fine Arts Pavilion in disrepair, 1929, Chicago Park District Records: Special Collections, Chicago Public Library, Photograph 046_029_002.
The natural history museum operated out of the old Fine Arts building until 1920, when a new Field Museum was reaching completion in Grant Park. The Jackson Park pavilion was already in poor condition, and it fell into even greater disrepair while sitting vacant over the next several years. A group of well-known architects, including Louis Sullivan, believed the World’s Fair pavilion represented a bygone era and that it should be demolished. Other Chicagoans rallied to save it. Among them was Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932), the head of Sears, Roebuck & Company and one of the nation’s most significant philanthropists. Rosenwald suggested repurposing the building as an industrial science museum. He hosted a trip to Germany so Chicago’s park officials could see the world’s most innovative science museums. In addition to covering the costs of this excursion, Rosenwald would donate more than $7 million to convert the old Palace of Fine Arts into the Museum of Science and Industry.
Aerial view of completed Museum of Science and Industry, ca. 1933. Chicago Park District Records: Special Collections, Chicago Public Library, Photograph.
The Museum of Science and Industry’s baby chicks exhibit was a popular attraction from the mid-1950s to the late 1990s, when it was moved to Lincoln Park’s Farm in the Zoo, ca. 1970. Chicago Park District Records: Special Collections, Chicago Public Library, Photograph 046_024_001.
Rosenwald’s generous donation allowed the park commissioners to begin restoring the building just as the Depression set in. They architects Graham, Anderson, Probst, & White to carefully replicate the original appearance of the Palace of Fine Arts. The firm reclad its exterior in Bedford limestone. The Interior work included noteworthy elements in the Art Deco style. (Architects Alfred P. Shaw, Sigurd E. Naess, and Charles F. Murphy, who led the project for Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, soon left to form their own office.) The new Museum of Science and Industry opened in 1933.
Known as one of the world’s largest science museum’s today—and one of Chicago’s most popular attractions—the Museum of Science and Industry has been visited by more than 190 million guests since it first opened.
Museum of Science and Industry, 2010. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.