A Century of Progress records -- Collection Description and Series I: General Correspondence, 1927-1952
- TitleA Century of Progress records COP1
- PublisherSpecial Collections
- RepositorySpecial Collections
- Physical Description249.0 Linear feet
- AbstractA Century of Progress International Exposition was held in Chicago during the summers of 1933 and 1934 to commemorate the incorporation of the city in 1833. This collection consists of the extant operating records of A Century Progress World's Fair.
- OriginationCentury of Progress International Exposition (1933-1934 : Chicago, Ill.).
A Century of Progress International Exposition was held in Chicago during the summers of 1933 and 1934 to commemorate the incorporation of the city in 1833. Sponsors of the fair sought to broaden its appeal by adopting a theme of universal significance - the spectacular advances of science and technology during the period 1833-1933. Chicago, according to fair boosters, was "the only city of major importance whose entire life had been passed within this remarkable century, one in which the application of science to industry had brought profound changes in both the economic and cultural structure." The exposition was to serve as the "dramatization of the progress of civilization during the hundred years of Chicago's existence."
Although a number of suggestions for an appropriate celebration of the centennial had been advanced earlier, serious planning began in 1926 when Mayor William E. Dever, at the request of the Chicago Historical Society and the Chicago Plan Commission, appointed a Centennial Committee of 150 members. The Committee report, issued in July, 1927, called for the construction of several permanent buildings - a hospital, convention hall, and sports arena - in conjunction with a lakefront exposition. The report concluded that "the expenses incident to the financing of a celebration properly commemorative of Chicago's 100th Anniversary cannot be justified if the event is to take the character of a mere passing show." These proposals, submitted to the new Mayor, William H. Thompson, were opposed by a group of prominent businessmen on grounds that the general public had little interest in such an exposition, and that previous fairs had been financial disasters, sometimes precipitating business depressions. At this point, plans for a fair were abandoned.
The project was revived in November 1927, by Charles S. Peterson, who called together a new committee of sponsors. This group, which included Samuel Insull, Bernard E. Sunny, Chauncey McCormick and others, enlisted the support of Charles G. Dawes, then Vice President of the of the United States. With this backing, they appeared to before the Chicago City Council in December and received approval to organize a centennial fair. In January 1928, the Sponsors received a non-profit corporate charter as the Chicago's Second World's Fair Committee. Officers elected were Rufus C. Dawes, President; Charles S. Peterson, Vice-President; Daniel H. Burnham, Secretary; and George Woodruff, Treasurer. An Executive Committee was appointed with full power to act between meetings of the Board. The corporate name was changed to A Century of Progress on July 15, 1929.
Financing for the fair came entirely from private sources. The financial Committee, headed first by Samuel Insull and later by Charles G. Dawes, raised $271,400 for initial operating monies by the sale of Founder and Sustaining Memberships at $1,000 and $50 during January - February, 1928. A World's Fair Enrollment Committee sold advance memberships to the general public at $5.00; wide distribution of these certificates, which could be exchanged for ten admission tickets, helped promote popular interest in the fair. The bulk of the financial support, however, was obtained through the sale of $10, 000, 000 in gold notes at 6% interest, guaranteed against 40% of the gate receipts and secured by pledges of individual guarantors. Advance sales of exhibit space (begun in 1931, before the buildings were constructed) and tickets provided additional funds. Finally, goods and services needed for fair construction and valued at more than $2, 500,000 were contracted with gold notes as payment. After the close of the fair, demolition and restoration of the site, and liquidation of all claims, the corporation had a surplus of approximately $160, 000 which was divided, according to previous contract, among the Chicago Park District (formerly the South Park Commission), the Museum of Science and Industry, the Art Institute, the Adler Planetarium and other institutions which had made substantial contributions to the success of the exposition.
A Century of Progress was held on the lakefront from 12th Place to 39th Street, including Northerly Island and the lagoons. Although the lakefront had been considered the prime site from the earliest plans for an exposition, securing authority for its use required careful negotiations with the South Park Commission who held jurisdiction over the area. The enabling act authorizing the South Park Commissioners to conclude a contract with the fair corporation was passed by the Illinois General Assembly in June 1929; the Century of Progress Ordinance was not issued by the Commissioners until April 1930. Provisions of the ordinance included posting of a substantial performance bond as well as agreement to completely clear and restore the site to the satisfaction of the Commissioners. A second ordinance was passed, incorporating slight changes in the site boundaries, to cover the operating period 1934. After demolition of the fair in 1935, the status of obligations between the Century of Progress and the Chicago Park District was settled by decree of the Superior Court, December 29, 1937.
In the early stages of preparation, fair officials sought assistance in developing master plans in two critical and interrelated areas - architecture and scientific exhibits. The theme of scientific progress was to be developed not only through exhibits but also by the buildings which housed them. Thus the fair architecture would represent application of the most advanced concepts in design construction to the problem of effective display of scientific exhibits.
An architectural Commission was appointed in March, 1928 with responsibility for determining the overall development of the buildings and grounds. The Commission produced an asymmetrical plan of "modern" design which recommended extensive use of the water areas to balance the long, narrow site. Mass application of a vivid color scheme for exteriors and interiors was presented as a means of defining aspects of individual buildings and unifying the diverse structural forms. Illumination of the fairgrounds by night for decorative effect was also an important feature of the plans. Eventually the site was divided into sections, each architect preparing designs and preliminary drawings for at least one building. The structure with the most architectural impact was the Travel and Transport Building, designed by E. H. Bennett, H. Burnham and J. A. Holabird. It featured a dome with interior dimensions of 125 feet high and 200 feet across, hung by an intricate cable system. The dome enclosed the "largest unobstructed area beneath a roof" that had been constructed up to that time, and represented the "first important application of architecture of the suspension bridge principle of support."
Scientific expertise was secured through the cooperation of the National Research Council, which endorsed the fair in October 1928, and named a large Science Advisory Committee. The preliminary report of this committee, issued April 8 1930, called for the construction of a "temple of science" to house exhibits in biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics; a mountain range for exhibits in earth sciences; and a Maya Temple for anthropological exhibits. In addition, 750,000 square feet of exhibit space was to be allotted to displays of applied science and technology. These recommendations were so inclusive that their implementation would have required virtually the entire space of the fair as finally constructed. Because of the stringent financial limitations following the stock market crash in October 1929 (the day after the gold notes were issued), major cut-backs had to be made in the proposals of the architectural and scientific advisory boards. The Works and Exhibits Departments were charged with producing plans that could be carried out within the budget. Their scaled-down plans did result in some drastic changes to the original proposals. For example, the Hall of Science, conceived as the architectural and conceptual focal point of the fair, was originally to be built astride the 16th street bridge over the lagoon. This type of construction was rejected as too costly, and a design intended for a general exhibits building was modified to serve as the Hall of Science. Ralph Walker's proposal for a massive tower of water and light at the lower end of the lagoon was also eliminated because of cost, the Skyride being substituted. The Exhibits Department consolidated the Science Advisory Committee recommendations under broad general categories and solicited exhibits from industries in areas where the fair could not afford to construct its own. The donor was allowed to display a product trade name on such exhibits - e. g., mining equipment for metallurgical display - a practice resulting in charges of commercialization.
Administration of the fair was highly centralized in the office of the General Manager, Lenox Riley Lohr. Lohr was responsible only to the President and had direct control over all opereating departments. He named all department heads, approved all expenditures, and signed all contracts. In the attempt to minimize operating expenses in 1934, the departmental organization was abandoned. Administrative authority was delegated to special assistants to the General Manager who were responsible for specific operating functions or districts of the fair.
Principle fair features were the scientific and industrial exhibits; historical replicas of old Fort Dearborn and a group of buildings associated with Abraham Lincoln; pavilions of the states and federal government; foreign villages, including the notorious "Streets of Paris;" and the Midway and Enchanted Island amusements. The Art Institute cooperated by staging an important exhibit with the theme, "A Century of Progress in American Collecting." The Adler Planetarium was operated as an attraction, and special events and athletic contests were held in nearby Soldier Field. Te fair sponsored a pageant of transportation entitled, "Wings of a Century," as well as nationality days, visits by distinguished guests, conferences and professional meetings and miscellaneous publicity stunts.
A Century of Progress was originally scheduled to run from May27 to November 12, 1933, but the attendance (ca 22. 3 million) ran far below the projection of 60 million with the result that the bondholders had been paid only 50% on their investment. The decision to operate a second year was based on the estimate that the overhead expenses could be reduced to a minimum resulting in a larger daily take from the gate receipts, which could be used to retire the gold notes. This prediction proved to be correct. The 1934 fair, billed as the beginning of a New Century of Progress, attracted over 16 million paying customers between May 26th and October 31 and resulted in a slight surplus after the bondholders had been paid in full. This successful financial conclusion is cited as the outstanding accomplishment of the fair officials, especially in view of the opposition of many of the leading Chicago businessmen and the depressed economic conditions of the country.
According to the terms of the Century of Progress Ordinance, the site was to be cleared and restored to the satisfaction of the South Park Commissioners. In practice this meant that certain improvements - service roads, utilities etc. - were retained by the Park Board, which also took over the Administration for its headquarters until 1940. All other structures were razed - the sole exception being a commemorative marble column to General Italo Balbo and the Italian aviators who flew to the fair in 1933. This was given by the Italian government to the City of Chicago and stands on the fair site off Lake Shore Drive.
This series contains general correspondence from 1927 to 1935. It contains correspondence dealing with all aspects of fair planning, operation and demolition. It is arranged alphabetically by name or title of correspondent.
The Manuscript Section of the UIC Library received the records as part of the Lenox Riley Lohr Collection in 1968. This donation also included records of the Chicago Railroad Fair (1948 to 1949) and Lohr's personal papers. Each of these groups was handled as a separate collection. A Century of Progress papers became part of the Lohr Collection in the following way:
The Century of Progress corporation continued in existence a number of years after the close of the exposition to supervise demolition, little legal claims, and close the accounts. The General Managere was charged by the Board of Trustees with writing the official history of the fair. Lohr's staff went through the files and removed specific items to compile special subject folders, chronologies and department histories. The items, as well as certain important record groups, were sent to Lohr's New York office when he became President of NBC in 1936. Meanwhile, the bulk of the corporate records were transferred from the Administration building on the fairgrounds to a downtown Chicago office under the supervision of the Secretary. Selected series were loaned out to persons working on the official history.
In 1940, when Lohr returned to Chicago to become President of the Museum of Science and Industry, he proposed that A Century of Progress office be closed and all records be transferred to the Museum. The museum also assumed all outstanding obligations and claims of the corporation. A Century of Progress memorial exhibit was dedicated on May 27, 1942. In the course of these moves, some of the records were lost or destroyed, although no systematic appraisal and disposition was carried out. The official fair history was not published until 1952, when Lohr revised sections of the manuscript and issued it as Fair Management. After Lohr's death in 1968, the Century of Progress papers were offered to the UIC Library.
A Century of Progress records, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Illinois at Chicago