The World’s Fair influences American culture for years to come. Elias Disney, who worked on the Fair, may have unknowingly inspired his son, Walt Disney to build Disneyland. L. Frank Baum was inspired to invent Oz after visiting the World’s Fair, and the Japanese temple in the Wooded Island may have influenced Frank Lloyd Wright. President Harrison declared October 12 Columbus Day, and every carnival since the World’s Fair has included a Midway and a Ferris Wheel. Incandescent bulbs powered by alternating current, which were first displayed in large numbers at the Fair, are now common in every American home. Neoclassical architecture, which the World’s Fair helped to popularize, can still be seen in any city.
Though the physical WF eventually disappears, its influence persists long after, in literature, in science, and in architecture. The fact that this is the case overturns Larson’s observation at the beginning of the book: that the WF has been largely forgotten. The truth, it now seems, is that while the WF itself has been forgotten, the science and culture it directly inspired has not been forgotten, and in fact has rippled outward, can be seem everywhere around us.
The greatest legacy of the World’s Fair was to popularize architecture and city planning itself. William Stead, the journalist, published a book, If Christ Came to Chicago, which helped to launch the City Beautiful movement, encouraging Americans to make their cities aesthetically competitive with those of Europe.
The goal of competing with European culture, so important to the WF, lives on long after 1893. In many ways, we can see the competition between America and Europe even today.
Burnham was hired to design areas in Cleveland, San Francisco, and Manila, and was crucial in redesigning Washington D.C. In all of these cases, he worked for free. Burnham also designed Soldier Field and the Field Museum, two of Chicago’s most beloved landmarks.
Burnham works for free, suggesting that he isn’t motivated by material gain but rather by a desire to achieve glory and be remembered after he dies.
The World’s Fair has become the subject of much debate. Some maintain that the Fair destroyed the “Chicago School” of architecture and replaced it with an obsolete, severe neoclassical style. This thesis has been popular in the academic world, to the point where it’s difficult for anyone to argue with it.
Even during the WF, designers thought that the buildings were too aggressively neoclassical. It seems that this belief has persisted long after the end of the WF.
Late in his life, Louis Sullivan condemned the World’s Fair. After it was finished, he only received a small number of commissions, and fell into loneliness and alcoholism. He was an argumentative, arrogant man, and bad at building relationships with clients. On several occasions he borrowed money from Burnham.
Sullivan is in many ways Burnham’s opposite. He despises neoclassical architecture; more importantly, perhaps, he is bad at the politics of architecture, meaning that he can’t forge useful connections with others.
Sullivan wrote a biography in 1924 in which he criticized Burnham and the World’s Fair for destroying architecture’s creativity and uniqueness. Frank Lloyd Wright, who Sullivan had fired years ago, supported Sullivan’s architectural style, and his influence has been so great that Sullivan’s reputation has grown in the 20th century while Burnham’s has shrunk.
Larson portrays Sullivan as a vindictive and jealous man, who didn’t mind borrowing money from the same person he criticized so angrily in print. Sullivan fits the archetype of the “suffering creative genius” better than Burnham does, which might account for Sullivan’s appeal throughout the 20th century. To a degree, Larson wants to set the record straight about Burnham and Sullivan, to make it clear that Burnham’s poor reputation in modern architecture is undeserved.
The academic interpretation of the World’s Fair is too simplistic, Larson argues. The Fair revived the public interest in architecture and thus paved the way for Frank Lloyd Wright and other modernist architects.
Whether the style of the WF itself was good or bad, the Fair inspires architects to design buildings in many different styles — it’s more important to understand this than it is to critique the WF’s architecture.
Burnham became the greatest architect in America following the end of the World’s Fair, and eventually he received honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale. He resented the claim that John Root had been the true creative genius behind the World’s Fair — in reality, Root’s tragic death made Burnham a much better architect. He later designed the Flatiron Building, one of New York’s most famous and earliest skyscrapers. Burnham was also an early environmentalist, and a friend of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Burnham’s honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale bring him “full circle” to the time in his youth when he was denied admission from both universities. By being America’s greatest architect, Burnham seems to have overcome his insecurity about being excluded from the Eastern elite.
Burnham’s health grew worse when he was in his fifties; he learned that he had diabetes. He become introspective, and developed a belief in the supernatural, one telling a friend that he believed he could prove that there was life after death.
Burnham’s belief in life seems perfectly consistent with his interest in building a legacy for himself — he wants his buildings and his personal reputation to live on for hundreds of years, so in this sense, Burnham has always believed in life after death.