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Then and Now: A Century of Progress

Conceived in an atmosphere of economic, political, and social crisis, the Century of Progress was shaped by the economic recession that followed America's victory in World War I, the ensuing Red Scare, Chicago's 1919 Race Riots, and Chicago's notorious gangster violence. With local and international support, the fair became a reality in the midst of the Great Depression and offered employment, entertainment, and education—a vision into “the world of tomorrow”.

Then, 1933

The Century of Progress Exposition was held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the incorporation of the City of Chicago. Taking place in the south end of the Loop on Northerly Island, the fair officially opened May 27, 1933. It demonstrated to local and international audiences the nature and significance of scientific discoveries, the methods of achieving them, and the changes they would bring to enhance industry and urban living. This was done through varied and sensational exhibits, international cuisines, demonstration shows, rides and attractions that were scattered throughout the entire fairgrounds. These demonstrations of forward thinking shed light on the future and not only contributed to the revival from the Great Depression, but also sparked motivation and creativity in those who would help make the Loop what it is today.

  • The fair was held on the 427 acres of Northerly Island—the only manmade island stemming from Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago.
  • The motto of the fair was "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms".
  • The nickname for the fair was “Rainbow City”. In contrast to "The White City"—the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893—Century of Progress was vibrant with color. Buildings were painted with color schemes in four hues from a total palette of 23 colors.
  • The Sky Ride, the architectural symbol of the fair, transported visitors in enclosed cars 218 feet above the North Lagoon between two 628-foot steel towers.
  • Another large attraction was the to-scale replica of Fort Dearborn, Chicago’s first public building.

Now, 2013

Today, Northerly Island, the former grounds of Meigs Field aviation airport, is a 91- acre peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan at the heart of the Museum Campus. With a dedicated park area, mostly preserved for nature observance and recreational activities, it is also home to Charter One Pavilion, Solider Field, McCormick Place and Burnham Harbor. While the Century of Progress Exposition included current structures like the Adler Planetarium and the Shedd Aquarium, it left no permanent buildings. However, its profits enriched several of Chicago’s current cultural institutions in the Loop, some of which still have exhibition materials as part of their permanent collections. In December 2010, the Chicago Parks District unveiled its framework plan for Northerly Island to be completed over the next 20 - 30 years. The park will provide a variety of year-round uses with ecology and education central themes. A reef will be built and the park will include active zones and relaxation zones for leisure activities.

  • Today, Balbo's Column is the only structure remaining from the original site. This column, a gift of the Italian government, was removed from the ruins of a Roman temple in Ostia. It commemorates General Balbo's trans-Atlantic flight to Chicago in 1933, and still stands opposite Soldier Field.
  • Northerly Island connects to the mainland through a narrow isthmus along Solidarity Drive dominated by Neoclassical sculptures of Kościuszko, Havliček and Copernicus.
  • Burnham Harbor and the water surrounding Northerly Island continues to be a favorite fishing spot amongst Chicagoans. Various forms of salmon, trout and even bass are the popular catches.
  • Last month, Northerly Island celebrated its 10th anniversary as an independent public space for urban dwellers.

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