A Single Beam of Starlight

May 27, 1933, was a lovely spring day along the shores of Lake Michigan. The combined efforts and hopes of the 1933 Chicago World Fair’s planners, designers, lighting experts, carpenters, plasterers, landscapers, concessionaires, and publicists were finally ready to be put on display for an eager public, clamorous for both diversion and inspiration. On that first day, over 120,000 visitors passed through the fair’s gates. But it was that evening, at sunset, that the true spectacle of the day’s events transpired.

The 1933 Fair’s organizers had hoped to capture the scientific, futuristic element of the event in an unmistakable manner. In the months leading up to the grand opening, leading scientists and university astronomers had been teamed with the best and brightest from General Electric, Westinghouse, and AT&T to develop a scheme whereby the light of a distant star would be used to power the “on” switch for the fair’s glorious Technicolor light show. This “single beam of starlight” came from the star Arcturus, thousands of light years away. In fact, it was calculated that the light, traveling at the nearly immeasurable speed of 186,000 miles per second through space, took forty years to reach Earth. Thus, the light used to power the switch had been generated in 1893, the year of the original Chicago World’s Fair.1

This clever way of generating public interest in the fair’s official opening displayed the wonders of science while at the same time reminding everyone that Chicago had previously (and quite successfully) hosted a World’s Fair. The earlier fair had been staged further south along the lakefront, while this newest incarnation was set closer to the city’s downtown, on Northerly Island and the adjacent lakefront near the city’s major public venues such as the Field Museum of Natural History and Soldier Field. Another of these institutions, Adler Planetarium, was located within the fairgrounds and was a physical example of the importance the city of Chicago itself placed on astronomy. It was telling, however, that the Arcturus project was a product of private enterprise—not public largesse.

Lenox Lohr had been tasked with creating this futuristic wonderland in such a way that it would incorporate the most modern, cutting-edge methods and materials to inspire, educate, and uplift the hoped-for, admissions-paying masses, but in a manner that would pay for itself. The Dawes brothers could not have hired a more competent manager—his total commitment to the enterprise, perhaps more than any other single factor, is what made this fair, the “Fair.” One of the key elements was his ability to organize the fair’s major exhibits by technology, not by individual companies, and thus realize Rufus Dawes’s vision of cooperation within industries. If GE and Westinghouse could join forces to produce such an awe-inspiring opening, then why not Ford and General Motors, and so on? Collaboration, not competition, produced the war-winning formula for the United States in 1917–1918, and could be employed again to make a roaring success of the fair. Eliminate redundancies, share costs, articulate a common message about the importance of a given industry, and make a greater impression on the public. Architects, electrical engineers, and set designers were eager to try new ideas and materials in what everyone understood was a temporary installation, its very impermanence making it more attractive to people who were thinking boldly. As Lisa Schrenk explained in her book on the fair’s architecture:

the event offered a rare design opportunity, as they were able to develop, and present their ideas without having to deal with the difficult clients, zoning rules, skeptical bankers, or restrictive programs that often dictated more permanent building projects. . . . A lack of a rigid building code allowed exposition architects to break away from conventional standards. The knowledge that the buildings were going to be short-lived and set outside the everyday world offered the designers the freedom to experiment.2

And they didn’t disappoint. With rare exceptions, those architects, engineers, and designers who were lucky enough to have been selected by the Fair Committee to contribute gave Chicago and the world something extraordinary. From the perspective of the twenty-first century, it can be quite frustrating to realize that almost nothing is left of the 1933 World’s Fair. But this was the plan all along. Even before the fair began, every structure (often covered with remarkable works of art) was designed on the understanding that it would be removed when it ended—its various component parts slated to be dismantled and used in other construction projects, or recycled as scrap. Before lamenting this loss, one also needs to keep in mind that this “temporary-ness” was the very reason why these structures with their various works of art were so extraordinary. It allowed artists and businessmen to take risks. It was the cost of greatness.


Exterior view of the Hall of Science, with relief sculptures depicting (from left): Fire, Light, Night, and Storm. Courtesy of University of Illinois Chicago Special Collections.

Of all of the structures at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, the wondrous “Hall of Science” takes first prize for the daringness of its conception and for its realization of both the fair’s vision and the times it inhabited. Located near the bridge that divided the north and south “lagoons,”* the Hall was constructed roughly in a U-shape, framing a Court of Honor in front of its main eastward-facing entrance. The Hall’s giant white pylons broken up by bas-relief panels were unlike anything the world had ever seen. No Corinthian columns or graceful classical porticos here, but rather a powerful expression of the as-yet-unseen future. The various arms and sides of the “U” featured giant works of sculpture whose style mixed the ancient and the futuristic. Art Deco architecture was all the rage in the late 1920s and early 1930s (another example of the cultural continuity of the Prohibition era). It was at least partly inspired by the archaeological discoveries of the period, in particular Howard Carter’s remarkable find in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings of the tomb of Tutankhamun. The date of the find (1925) is important in that it coincided with the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes being held in Paris, which incorporated ancient forms and design into its cutting-edge, streamlined structures.3 This was the style Charles Simeon Peterson had seen during his fact-finding tour of Europe years before. It was this congruence of unbroken straight, curved, and zigzagged lines drawing the viewers’ attention, combined with motifs from Sumerian ziggurats, Mayan temples, and Egyptian obelisks, that captured the age. A stylized lotus or lightning bolt explicitly connected design across millennia. Art Deco was sleek, elegant, modern, mysterious, and ancient. What it was not, was classical.

One of the finest examples of this style in sculpture was the giant depiction of “Knowledge Combating Ignorance” gracing the Hall’s north-facing court. Sculptor John H. Storrs’s “Knowledge” is depicted nude, in human form, vanquishing the stylized serpent representing “Ignorance.” “Knowledge” possesses great power but, unlike Michelangelo’s classically inspired David, there is an unnatural, angular, almost super-heroic element to the form: more god-like than merely human.

Inside the Hall’s open-air rotunda was set the fair’s main (and most lasting) artistic contribution. Louise Lentz Woodruff, the wife of banker George Woodruff, had been commissioned to create a work of art that would encapsulate the main ideas of the fair. Her brilliant “Fountain of Science” featured figures cast in lustrous white bronze. This moving three-part statue of a powerful but benign robot, head bowed, nudging figures of man and woman* into the future, welcomed visitors. Unlike the robots in filmmaker Fritz Lang’s 1927 futuristic dystopia in Metropolis, this robot was not to be feared, but trusted.


Louise Lentz Woodruff’s masterpiece, Science Advancing Mankind.

Installed on the various panels at the statue’s base above the fountain’s eight pools, Lentz Woodruff created a series of bas reliefs in an even more explicitly Art Deco style. The panels represent stylized interpretations of the various sciences being featured at the fair, driving humanity forward. The work itself was titled Science Advancing Mankind, epitomizing the fair’s official motto: “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.” This motto certainly possessed a certain totalitarian tone in its directives, which, in retrospect, frankly don’t seem open to discussion. Fortunately, today one can still appreciate Lentz Woodruff’s conception in its totality, in person (minus the elevated base and pools). When the fair ended, she donated her masterpiece to her alma mater, Joliet Central High, located a little less than an hour southwest by train from Chicago. It is magnificent.

In addition to its modernist, Art Deco exterior, the Hall of Science featured a 186-foot-high tower that was unlike anything in its time. Today, when one looks at a photograph of the “Carillon Tower,” it still looks strikingly modern, a building that wouldn’t be a bit out of place (if it was vertically stretched) in the skyline of twenty-first-century Miami Beach, Hong Kong, or Chicago itself. The interior of the building—as would be the case with a number of the more prominent structures at the fair—would feature very little natural lighting. Windows were apparently not modern. Giant towers with outer skins made entirely of glass, such as the present-day One World Trade Center in New York, were still beyond the conception, it seems, of most modern architects at the time.*

The Electricity Building, located across the south lagoon from the Hall of Science, was perhaps more impressive still. Laid out in a more shallow U-shape than the Hall of Science, its open courtyard faced the lagoon and featured two giant bas-relief sculptures flanking the top of the “U”—one female, one male, harnessing the wonder technology of the age. At the end of the U’s northerly arm, two giant rectangular pylons reminiscent of Mayan temples faced the lagoon. The fronts of each of these pylons were covered with more works of sculpture of a similar theme and style to those at the top of the “U.”

In 1893, Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla had awed the world. Forty years later, electricity continued to have a powerful hold on the public. This was particularly true in rural areas. In 1933, large swaths of the United States had yet to be electrified. This was before the gigantic government-directed hydroelectric projects in the Tennessee Valley and at Grand Coulee. If fire had been Prometheus’s great contribution to man, then electricity was the great contribution of modern Prometheuses. The fair made this clear.

Adjacent to the Electricity Building, facing the north lagoon, was the U.S. Government (or “Federal”) Building. It was an odd cross between three white streamlined windowless towers reminiscent of a Le Corbusier design, and the Jefferson Memorial. It was the towers that got everyone’s attention. Clustering three identical towers like that was also something new. Today one can recall the former twin towers at the World Trade Center, or the myriad public housing projects built in urban areas after World War II. But in 1933 it was strikingly modern. Thus, if one came to this new fair looking for “a century of progress,” documenting Chicago’s evolution from outpost to metropole, one would have come away disappointed. Yes, there was a


The Electricity Building pictured with the Goodyear blimp in the sky (these blimps were dwarfed by the much-larger zeppelins). Courtesy of University of Illinois Chicago Special Collections.

mock-up of the War of 1812–era Fort Dearborn, as well as du Sable’s earlier trading post. But the unmistakable thrust of this fair was the next century, not the one being commemorated. This would have been immediately apparent to everyone paying their 50-cent price of admission. No one had ever seen anything quite like this, because nothing like this had ever been conceived before. The future had landed on the shores of Lake Michigan.


* This was really just an inlet of the lake separating Northerly Island from the lakefront.

* Both depicted nude from the waist up, wearing ancient Egyptian clothing and hairstyle.

Botany, zoology, medicine, geology, astronomy, physics, mathematics, and chemistry.

Before venturing to Joliet to see Lentz Woodruff’s artwork, one should make arrangements with the school’s administration.

* Le Corbusier, perhaps, being the notable exception.

The area that today roughly constitutes what is popularly called “Chicagoland.”

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