Art From the 1893 World’s Fair Was Found in a Chicago Storage Facility
During Industrialization, World’s Fairs became the hottest places to showcase art and technology from across the globe. In 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago hosted exhibits from Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison, debuted Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and Juicy Fruit Gum, and became the site of the world’s first Ferris Wheel. Most of the architecture and artwork from the fair is gone for good, but three original pieces have just resurfaced.
The three intricate, carved Japanese sliding doors were discovered in a Chicago storage facility operated by the Park District. They depict two large, colorful birds and a smaller white bird against a vivid gold background.
Japan was one of many countries to construct buildings on the fairgrounds, as a way of showcasing Japanese art and architecture. The doors seem to have come from an installation called the Ho-o-den or "Hall of the Phoenix," and were made by a Japanese artist by the name of Hashimoto Gaho. In his photographic record of the fair, Stanley Applebaum described the Japan pavilion as “the first real introduction of Japanese architecture to the Midwest.”
An essay published the year after the fair opened dedicates a section to the fair’s Ho-o-den, and even appears to describe the newly discovered doors:
"The painting on the wall of the central room, depicting male and female phoenixes at play with their young, is by Professor Hashimoto, of the Tokyo Fine Art School, and his pupils. It is emblematic of the peaceful reign of the Tokugawa Shoguns... a period extending from the beginning of the seventeenth century down to the restoration when the present Emperor came into power in 1868."
A rare photograph of the building’s interior from the essay helped experts identify the pieces as the real thing.
The grounds of the Columbian Exposition were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect behind Central Park. The gorgeous layout and architecture of the fair is thought by many to be the inspiration behind the Emerald City in L. Frank Baum’s classic novels. When designing the grounds, Olmsted thought to put an island in the fair’s artificial lagoon that would offer visitors an escape from the over-stimulation. At the center of this Wooded Island stood the Japan pavilion.
While the Wooded Island is still around today, the pavilion along with most of the exposition’s architecture is long gone. In order to restore the pieces of Japanese art, the city of Chicago plans to collaborate with the Art Institute where they’ll likely go on display.