Monday, September 24, 2012

The White City - Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition

On Friday September 28, 2012 at 7:00pm, the museum is proud to host a production of “The White City.”  This original musical, produced by Lost and Found Productions and playwright June Finfer, focuses on one of the most legendary events in Chicago history – the World’s Columbian Exposition.

When Chicago wins the right to host the 1893 fair, the first great fair in the United States, the architect chosen to design and build it in record time – Daniel Burnham – finds that ambition is not enough.  He needs a lot of help from even those who oppose him.  In the three-year period of construction of the mile square fairgrounds and dozens of buildings, a vast canvas of characters vie with fate, death, and love to achieve the impossible.  Original music by Elizabeth Doyle that could have been written in the Gay 90s brings color and humor to a story of “making no little plans.”  This musical explores the politics and passions behind a unique national event, in many ways the first and last of its kind.

June Finfer is an award-winning writer, and a producer of documentaries.  Her film about the architecture of Mies van der Rohe has been broadcast on A&E and PBS and won a first prize at the American Film Festival.

Pre-paid tickets are $25.00 per person and may be purchased by calling 312.326.1480.  The production will take place in the coach house of Glessner House Museum, located at 1800 S. Prairie Avenue in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood.

John and Frances Glessner made numerous trips to the fairgrounds, which are recorded in Frances’ journal.  Daniel Burnham, the fair’s Director of Construction, was a close friend of the family, so they were given special privileges, like access to the grounds in advance of its official openings and the opportunity to visit private viewing areas. 

In a manuscript entitled “Ghosts of Yesterday,” John Glessner recalled some of the individuals who visited 1800 S. Prairie Avenue during the Fair.  We herewith present a few excerpts from that manuscript.

“Other dear and delightful friends were Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Law Olmsted.  Our families were on very intimate terms.  George and young Frederick were classmates in College (Harvard).  During the World’s Fair Mr. and Mrs. Olmsted visited us.  He was America’s first and leading landscape architect, really settled the location of the Fair and laid it out.  In many warm discussions with the architects Mr. Olmsted always kept still until everyone else had talked, and then quietly would say – ‘Why don’t you do so and so?’ and that invariably settled it.  Mrs. Olmsted was a quaint little body, wore a white lace cap built over a rather high frame and tied under her chin in a large bow knot of wide muslin strings, and was a lovely picture.”

“It was (Charles) Hutchinson, too, who first brought Sir Caspar Purden Clarke, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, possessing a great and thorough knowledge of art but never forcing his knowledge or position on one – another cultured Englishman, with all that that implies.  As he left our dining room he said to Hutchinson – ‘You ought to keep you eyes on that punch bowl.  That’s a museum piece.  You ought to have it in your Art Museum.”  (Hutchinson was the long-time president of the Art Institute of Chicago.  The Glessners purchased their silver niello punch bowl from the Siam exhibit at the close of the fair.)

“The World’s Fair brought us many pleasing experiences with men and things, both in the early days of preparation and later in the installing of exhibits and the display itself.  It brought, also, some official representatives from abroad that our authorities treated very well, better than some of them deserved.  Special attention was paid to the Spanish representative.  I think the Duke of Veragua was never in my house, but I had some small connection with his entertainment – once at a horse show on the Dunham farm at Wayne, where Arthur Caton was in charge and asked my help; and again at South Bend, where the first Clement Studebakers were entertaining the “royal” party at luncheon, where I witnessed the most marvelous exhibition of hospitality.  We went from Chicago, a train load of men.  Unfortunately the house had taken fire that morning and the roof and part of the upper storeys burned, but the Studebakers spread tarpaulins under the ceiling of the dining room and gave us a magnificent luncheon on a beautifully decorated table just as if nothing had happened or as if that was the way they always did it, while water trickled down the walls of the room and leaked through spots in the tarpaulin.  Again it was my lot to help entertain the Duke in a theater box at a play.  Perhaps my total ignorance of Spanish and his imperfect knowledge of English combined with the inanities of the play at least account partially for the lack of spontaneous hilarity that marked the evening for both of us.”

“Perhaps it was not only the Chatelain that brought these World’s Fair men to us.  There was the daughter of the house – only a child then, it is true, but good company even then.  (Fanny Glessner was 15 years old at the time of the Fair).  There was the freedom of the house, a man might come or go as he pleased, he might talk or merely listen, he might read or merely sit and contemplate; there was a willing ear to hear and a heart to sympathize in their troubles, and there were creature comforts as well – always a good Sunday supper, and as with the proverbial stage or street car, there was at table always room for one more.  This house was a haven of refuge for many, the shadow of a great rock in a weary land, and these friends brought many amusing tales.  One gay young visitor came home one day from the Fair to say that going into one building she met an elderly man coming out who apparently had no one to talk with and who was oppressed by the size of the thing and the short time at his disposal, and perhaps encouraged by her winning smile broke out with, “I can’t see the damned thing in a month.” 

“And we had the World’s Fair architects – Burnham, and John Root, before his untimely death, and Charles Follen McKim, and Robert Swain Peabody, and William R. Meade, and (John Goddard) Stearns and George B. Post, and Charles Coolidge, who built the present Art Institute for religious and other conferences during the Fair, and who restrained his impatience one night until everybody else had gone that he might tell us of his love romance that had culminated in acceptance the day before in St. Louis.”

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