Fountain Square, Cincinnati, 1871-1970. (Online)

Two days before the 1871 Chicago fire, Cincinnati had dedicated its new downtown esplanade and fountain, fondly referred to as Fountain Square.  Cincinnati magnate Henry Probasco had wanted to memorialize the life of Tyler Davidson, his business partner and brother-in-law with an appropriate monument.  He had traveled to Munich and commissioned the casting of a 43’ high bronze statue/fountain, to be named “The Genius of Water,” a metaphor for the importance of the Ohio River in the city’s history.  While it was being fabricated, Probasco returned to Cincinnati and convinced the city government to replace a deteriorating butchers’ market in the middle of 5th Street with a landscaped esplanade located between the two one-way stretches of the street as a fitting park for the expected fountain.  Probasco’s munificence established a pattern of urban beautification, not unlike what Paris had experienced during the Second Empire, for Cincinnati’s private civic benefactors who would turn the city into what would be called “the Paris of America” during the 1870s and into the 1880s. As the center of Paris had been rebuilt and updated during the 1850s and 1860s, Cincinnati would undergo a similar urban transfiguration during the 1870s.  Paralleling Parisian precedents, Cincinnati would build its versions of new urban pedestrian walkways, a new opera house, an urban arcade, and a department store larger than the Bon Marché, then still under construction. (This appellation would also be applied to Chicago, albeit in a pejorative manner: Chicago’s fire had occurred only five months after Paris had been set ablaze by the Communards during the final days of the brief Paris Commune.  Also, following the fire, Chicago would witness urban social unrest during the coming decades similar to that of Paris’.

Ferdinand and Fritz von Miller, Tyler Davidson Fountain, “The Genius of Water,” Cincinnati, 1871. (Online)


While Cincinnati was off and running with its campaign to be the Western capital of culture and conventions, Chicago had spent the last eighteen months cleaning up after the fire and rebuilding its business district, minus, unfortunately, Crosby’s Opera House.  Chicago had lost its premiere cultural venue, one that would not be replaced during the next seventeen years.  The announcement of Cincinnati’s upcoming May Festival and of its securing the talent of Theodore Thomas had to strike a nerve among Chicago’s elite, as well as its own German population.  The gauntlet had been thrown down and Chicago was quick to try to pick it up.  In March 1873, only two months before Thomas’s opening night for Cincinnati’s May Festival, a group of Chicago’s cultural elite formed a private stock company with the expressed intent of erecting a facility that could give Cincinnati a run for its money. Even its name, the Inter-state Industrial Exposition Building had been crafted to send a message to Cincinnati. The chairman of the corporation was Nathaniel S. Bouton, owner of the Union Foundry Works, who, obviously also saw a readily available market for his product.   Many of the members of the stock company were also members of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, including: Wirt W. Dexter, Nathaniel K. Fairbank, and Joseph Medill, then the Mayor as well as the owner of the Chicago Tribune.  

The Expanse of Land created in Lake (Grant) Park by the debris from the Fire. (Online)

Using the guise of holding a celebration of the spectacular post-Fire rebuilding of the city, the organizers tried to convince Council to allow them to build and maintain the “temporary” facility free of charge on public land for one year on the east side of Michigan Avenue (where its replacement, the Art Institute now sits).  Convincing Council to permit a building on Lake Park after the fire, something that was completely taboo prior to October 8, 1871, (all we need to do is to remember the brouhaha over the State legislature trying to sell Lake Park to the IC), apparently had been made easier both by the depth of the economic tragedy of the fire, and also by the simple fact that the proximity of the lagoon so close to the destroyed portion of the business district had kept the cost of the post-fire demolition within reason because the fire’s debris did not need to be transported to the city limits but simply dumped as fill in the remaining portion of the lagoon up to the Illinois Central tracks.  There were now more than 40 acres of new parkland along the lakefront, so surely a portion of this could now be set aside for the civic functions that this private group was proposing, similar to what Cincinnati had recently done, could it not?

W.W. Boyington, Interstate Industrial Exposition Center, Chicago, 1873. (Online)

It took the threat posed by the successful May Festival in Cincinnati, however, to finally convince Common Council three weeks later to approve their request on May 28, 1873.  So in the face of the thirty-five year-history of rejecting all attempts to erect a building in Lake Park, the project’s organizers had pulled off a major political coup in getting Common Council to approve the construction of the Exposition Building on the east side of Michigan Avenue.  While the building designed by W.W. Boyington was over two city blocks long, with a floor area of some 244,000 sq. ft., Cincinnati’s Exposition facilities were still larger by almost another 100,000 sq. ft.    Its grand opening, as part of the city’s celebration of its stunning reconstruction, was somewhat less exhilarating than what its promoters had originally envisioned, however, as the Financial Panic of 1873 that initiated the “Great Depression” of the 1870s, had struck only the week before.

Boyington, Inter-state Industrial Exposition Building, Interior. (Online)

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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