The stockyard metaphor was appropriate. Chicago at the turn of the century was a tough city of urban squalor; stink from the stockyards, exploited workers, unchecked poverty, amorality and massive government corruption. It was urbanization with its most disastrous results, and much of the literature of the period addressed the “clash of aesthetic forms and ideal with the modern urban industrial environment. (Smith, 2) and the “uncertain status of art and the artist in the modern city.” (Smith, xi)
But people flocked to Chicago from the farmlands and the east seeking a new life and a way to make money. Some were extraordinarily successful; many others, particularly those of the immigrant population, ended up living in the back of the yards. But once the charred timbers had been hauled away the bawdy lady on the lake turned its thoughts to the aesthetic, and the Columbian Exposition of 1893 ultimately inaugurated a strengthened cultural awareness that, to two major figures of the artistic community, had played second fiddle to simply making money: Chicago-born writer Henry Blake Fuller and sculptor and educator Lorado Taft.
Chicago’s “cultural awakening “ had actually begun before the city decided to enter the competition for the Exposition, but even so, it was going to be a hard sell to Congress. “Kenny Williams, in her book, “In the City of Men,” reports that the opposition to Chicago was based in the opponents’ belief that “Chicago was not the city to invite the scrutiny of the world.” It was an issue of “dignity.” One senator pointed out that if he had to vote between Chicago and Hades as the site, he would be strictly neutral.” (Heise, Chicagoization, p. 11)
Chicago shrugged and a citizens committee, consisting of the city’s aristocracy including Marshall Field, George Pullman, and Potter Palmer, was formed in the summer of 1889 to secure the World’s Fair. It was a bold move, but the group was determined. “The men who have helped build Chicago want this fair and…they intend to get it.” (Miller, 379)
When the dust settled, Chicago won defeating its eastern rival New York. But it wasn’t just the fair that was important to the city.
“The fair is easily the most widely written about event in Chicago history, but the preparations for it were far more important for the city’s future than the fair itself. These preparations spawned or broadened the work of a host of new civic organizations and institutions that were part of what Henry Fuller called ‘the Upward Movement in Chicago,’ an elite-inspired effort at civic regeneration that continued well beyond the closing of the exposition.” (Miller, 378)
An offshoot of the fair preparations was the increasing number of cultural groups and organizations established, bringing together like-minded artists, writers, and social reformers. One such organization was called “The Little Room,” the Chicago version of European café society, and both Taft and Fuller were members, along with Jane Addams, George Ade, and Hamlin Garland, to name a few. Fuller was particularly fond of it, and for many years Taft and Fuller were considered to be the acknowledged leaders. (Pilkington p. 114)
Because of their shared interests and the concentric circles of friends, Fuller and Taft met, probably a year or so before the fair, and “in Lorado Taft, Fuller found a congenial companion whose artistic theories parallel his own. (Pilkington, Jr., 115)” The two men could not have been more different in personality, however they also had much in common. The were both prolific writers and critics, believed strongly in education, were influenced by European art and culture and “staunchly advocated the classical style in art.” (Pilkington p 115) Ironically, Taft was even studying sculpture in Paris about the same time Fuller made his first European pilgrimage. Taft and Fuller also agreed on the need for parks and public sculpture in the city in order to inspire and elevate its citizens. “Sculpture, Taft insisted and Fuller agreed, should be pictorial but also symbolic.” (Pilkington p 116) The Columbian Exposition proved beneficial to both men.
While Fuller, a life-long bachelor who lived alone, frequently changed his residence, mixed easily with Chicago’s elite and looked forward to the fellowship of The Little Room, he was basically disgusted with the city. Writer Hamlin Garland described him in his journal as a “wraith in pantaloons…[and] coldly sarcastic in his judgments of people…[Fuller] “carried himself with fastidious grace, a small alert gentleman who resented the mental and physical bad smells and raucous noises of his native town.” (Miller, 411)
When the Fair opened, Chicago native Henry Fuller was riding a wave of literary success from the publication of two European historical romances based on his travels in France and Italy: The Chevallier of Pensieri-Vani, in 1890 and the subsequent, but less popular, The Chatelaine of La Trinite in 1892. In 1893, however, Fuller’s writing took a new course and the first of his Chicago novels was published.
The first urban novel reflecting the social and economic trends of Chicago was Fuller’s The Cliff-Dwellers published, to the chagrin of the city, the year the Columbian Exposition would introduce Chicago to the world and when it wanted to put its best foot forward. That wasn’t exactly what Fuller had in mind. Fuller’s book was an attack on the city. He had little to say in its favor, and it fully illustrated his disgust of the commercialism that he felt had eroded the ideals of the Exposition.
Fuller applied the term “cliff-dwellers” to the people who lived and worked in the new skyscrapers that had begun being built after the Great Fire. Focusing on the residents of the ficticous Clifton Building (based on the Monadnock Building built in 1891), Fuller describes the businessmen and their families as they grasp for wealth, power and status all within the confines of the building.
Lorado Taft, on the other hand, while recognizing the city’s cultural shortcomings, was already firmly ensconced as an educator and teacher at The University of Chicago and The Art Institute when the Fair opened. In fact, the Fair provided Taft his first major commission, the two sculptural groups flanking the entrance of the Horticulture Building: “The Sleep of the Flowers” and “The Awakening of the Flowers.”
Taft was a tall, bearded sculptor trained at the Ecole Beaux-Arts who frequently dressed in a toga, staunchly believed in the community of artists and thought of himself as an “arts missionary.” He was known for his public speaking abilities and, in addition to The Little Room, was a member of the Chicago Literary Club from 1889 to 1900. Through his lectures and writing Taft created a national concern for the arts. Ten years after the Fair, Taft’s influence on an entire generation of artists was sealed with the publication of his book The History of American Sculpture.
After the Exposition, Taft undertook commissions for many statues, monuments and memorials. His greatest works, however, must include "The Fountain of the Great Lakes" (1913), installed at the Art Institute, and "Fountain of Time" (1922), which is located at the west end of the Midway Plaisance in Chicago.
But, it was his strong belief in an artistic community that kept Fuller by his side. Taft’s complex of studios near the University of Chicago (the Midway Studios) seemed to become the center of the sculpture world. And Fuller no doubt frequented his small studio on the 10th floor of the Fine Arts Building. But, it was the Eagle's Nest artists' colony (in nearby Oregon, Illinois) that may have attracted Fuller the most. This was a place where artists could go to just have a good time. It was also a place that Fuller probably felt the safest. While it was no doubt hinted at in his 1919 novel Bertram Cope’s Year, and spoken of in hushed tones during his lifetime, Fullers homosexuality was probably not common knowledge. The company of bohemians was undoubtedly a safe haven, and may explain why Fuller never left the city he seemed to love to hate.
But, as the historian of the upward movement in Chicago that had begun in the 1880s, Fuller characterized the fair as “a kind of post-graduate course for the men at the head of Chicago’s commercial and mercantile interest; it was the city’s intellectual and social annexation to the world at large,” (Pilkington, Jr., 112) and he carefully listed and acknowledged the city’s cultural progress. Mentioning his friend Lorado Taft twice in the 1897 Atlantic Monthly article, Fuller was also extremely complimentary of the contribution that woman had made to the movement.
Today, Chicago owes a great debt to Lorado Taft and Henry Blake Fuller. Chicago writers and artists are known and respected the world over. The parks and public sculpture that Taft and Fuller encouraged have come to pass, particularly in the new Millennium Park. Literary organizations, some having been established at the turn of the century, continue to encourage new writers of every decade. Taft and Fuller were not the only two men at the time of the Fair that had high cultural hopes for the young city, but it was their shared visions that has made Chicago the city it is today.
PHOTO: "Spirit of Great Lakes Fountain" erected on the south side of the Art Institute with people gathered in front of it (Chicago Daily News, 1913)DN-0061048, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago Historical Society.
Garvey, Timothy J. Public Sculptor: Lorado Taft and the Beautification of Chicago. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988
Heise, Kenan. The Chicagoization of America 1893-1917. Chicago: Chicago Historical Bookworks, 1990.
Miller, Donald L. City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Pilkington, Jr, John. Henry Blake Fuller. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc, 1970.
Smith, Carl S. Chicago and the American Literary Imagination 1880-1920. Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1984.