Do-it-Yourself World’s Fair – Chicago


Summer 2015

The city’s world’s fairs are mostly memories. Here’s how to assemble your own

The great world's fairs of the 19th and early 20th centuries were astounding in scope and vision. The idea remains compelling: Experience all of the technological, cultural and natural wonders of the world in one place. While those long-ago fairs are now mostly memories, it's easy to cobble together your own DIY world’s fair experience in a city that gave birth to two of the most memorable fairs of all time, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and the 1933 Century of Progress, and where the spirit of discovery is still going strong: Chicago, Illinois. Follow this four-day plan to discover these world’s fair wonders for yourself.

Day One: Thursday night

Enjoy a Beautiful Overview

Drop your Subaru at the Renaissance Blackstone Hotel and relax, it’s going to be a full weekend. Ask for an upper floor. From the southeastern-facing windows of the Renaissance Blackstone Hotel, you can see seven of the eight points on your itinerary (you’re standing in one of them). The hotel has hosted a dozen presidents and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, though it features a host of posh amenities and stylish modern design flourishes. While it closed briefly in the early thirties, it was later refurbished and reopened just in time to host guests for the 1933 World’s Fair.

Day Two: Friday

See a World of Art

The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the greatest houses of art in the world, and it has added eight more wings since it was first created for the Columbian Exposition, dramatically increasing its ability to show the breadth of its collections to the public.

Even so, only an estimated 5 percent of the Art Institute’s collection is on display at any one time. Don’t try to “do” the museum all in one go. A better strategy is to take an introductory tour of its highlights, or just grab a map and target your favorites. Prepare to be wowed. The collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art are particularly notable.

Enter a Field of Dreams

Gasp at the mummies and ancient artifacts in the Field Museum of Natural History while Indiana-Jonesing your way through a recreation of an Egyptian crypt. Come face to face with creatures that ruled the world millions of years ago, like Sue, a huge, nearly intact skeleton of a fearsome T-Rex, made only slightly less intimidating by being named “Sue.” A constantly changing schedule of events augments a formidable permanent collection that remains an invaluable resource for scholars and scientists, as well as the legions of schoolchildren who make pilgrimages here every year.

Day Three: Saturday

Travel from the Deep Seas ...

Another enduring gift from the Century of Progress of 1933, the John G. Shedd Aquarium was the first inland aquarium in the United States to feature a permanent saltwater habitat in addition to freshwater exhibits. A million gallons of ocean were drawn from the waters of Key West, Florida, and shipped in specially insulated tanks filling 20 railroad cars to the shores of Lake Michigan. That water was then populated with species of marine life never before seen in the United States. Two modern expansions to the museum in 1991 and 2003 have doubled the square footage and made possible new environments for larger marine animals, such as the famed beluga whales that cavort for visitors in a spectacular infinity pool that melds with the view of Lake Michigan beyond. The museum’s mission goes far beyond show and tell, however, with environmental programs and ongoing efforts to better understand the creatures that live there and to improve conservation efforts.

... to the Distant Stars

The Adler Planetarium, built for the 1933 Century of Progress, was the first modern planetarium in the Western Hemisphere. The museum has grown steadily, most recently adding the 60,000-square-foot Sky Pavilion in 1999. The Granger Sky Theater, one of two domed theaters, offers breathtaking, immersive shows that pierce the veil of the night sky and send you virtually floating through the cosmos. The Definiti Space Theater uses an all-digital projection system to whoosh you away to the furthest reaches of the universe in the search for life on other planets. In addition to the myriad sights and daily activities for visitors, the Adler is also, of course, a hive of activity at night, with telescope observing, and cocktail parties for star-gazing adults.

Take the Wheel

Take a ride on Navy Pier’s Ferris wheel to get an entirely different view of Grant Park and Chicago’s lakefront. The world’s first-ever Ferris wheel was created especially for the World’s Columbian Exposition by George Ferris, and reached 263 feet into the air, hung with 36 cars, each of which could hold 60 people. On its first day of operation, one car carried a 40-piece band that played “America” as the massive wheel revolved. While that enormous wheel is long gone, in the mid-90s Chicago revived their long-dormant Navy Pier and repurposed it as an entertainment destination with an amusement park that includes a modern 150-foot Ferris wheel. Enjoy a ride and take in the view. End the night on Navy Pier by taking in the fireworks display that the pier offers every Saturday night in summer.

Day Four: Sunday

Hear the Echoes of History

Originally constructed as The Palace of Fine Arts, the Museum of Science and Industry is the greatest remaining building from the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, when Chicago first captured the imagination of the world. In 1930, the city refurbished the great building and rechristened it the Museum of Science and Industry, making it the centerpiece of the 1933 World’s Fair, the Century of Progress. Many of the 1933 fair’s original exhibits can still be toured, but the museum has also steadily added new stars to its holdings, and modern exhibitions continue to track the leading edge of science and technology, showing how industry leverages that intelligence to transform our lives for the better in new and interesting ways. Stand in the center of the rotunda and do a slow clockwise turn to see the technological marvels of the past 150 years parade past you.

Watch the Ripples

Photo: Robert Bundy

End the day at Chicago’s newest addition to its many public spaces, Millennium Park. Hear a live concert at the band shell, stroll past the artworks, watch the play of reflections shimmer across the Cloud Gate, eat at one of the many outdoor cafes, and drink in the summer night. Fall in with the crowd of locals and visitors from all over the world who still come to Chicago to find community here along a lakefront that the city proudly proclaims belongs to everyone. Sit on a bench facing the Crown Fountain and watch families turn their kids loose into the water to splash and interact with the luminous columns of artworks displaying playful animated projections of the white, black, and brown faces of everyday men and women. In the faces of those children, you can see the wonder being born in this next generation, the ripples of which will carry us all out over that distant horizon into the future.

Download the interactive map for this itinerary. Click here