Japan Took Center Stage at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair

Visitors to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 were treated to all the wonders of the Industrial Age. One of every six Americans made their way to Chicago to experience the 65,000 exhibits spread across 633 acres of fairgrounds. They were amazed by the clean and safe elevated railway and the electric launches plying the canals and lagoons designed by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

Japan was the first country to reserve space at the exposition. The Japanese exhibition, costing $650,000, was set prominently on a wooded island in the central lagoon. Here they erected a reproduction of the most ancient, beautiful, and celebrated temple in Japan—the eleventh-century Buddhist pavilion known as Ho-o-den, or house made like the Phoenix. Onlookers were enthralled when, like its namesake, the temple gracefully rose from its island nest. Chicagoans arrived daily to watch the company of “odd, merry and industrious Japanese artisans” unpack and assemble their gift to America. “What bright and nimble workers these Japanese are!” wrote Harpers Weekly.

The talented craftsmen went about piecing together the carved and hand-hewn timbers using nothing more than adzes, planes, and ropes. The workers labored quietly and intently in stark contrast to the frantic construction taking place just across the lagoon. The band of Japanese workers were dwarfed by an army of steel workers, armed with massive cranes and steam-driven riveters, who raced against the clock to finish the gargantuan Manufactures Building. This Beaux Arts temple dedicated to industrial progress stretched for one-third mile and, upon completion, was the largest building in the world. For the first time on American soil, Japanese architecture and simplicity had come face-to-face with Western showmanship and opulence.

The Japanese display was widely regarded as the most pleasant of all national exhibits. The island sanctuary was the one place where fairgoers just relaxed. It was a great spot for lovers, too. As the sun set, the island was lit by little “fairy lights” of colored glass arranged along the paths. Unlike the bright lights of electricity that drove the rest of the fair, the fairy lights were small warm-colored oil lamps. This oasis in a sea of technology was the one still spot where you could stop and take it all in.

Visitors to the Japanese pavilion were provided with a printed guidebook. Room by room and item by item, the various furnishings, artifacts, objects, and art were discussed and pictured. A detailed English language guidebook had been prepared and written by the exhibition’s prime mover, Okakura Kakuzo, director of Tokyo’s Fine Arts Academy. A decade later, this Japanese art historian would serve as Asian Arts Curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where he authored The Book of Tea.

The Ho-o-den’s five-hundred-year-old architectural lines had a remarkable influence on young architects striving to make a modern statement in a Victorian age. In attendance at the fair

were brothers Charles and Henry Greene, two aspiring architects born in Cincinnati, who would incorporate these newly-discovered Asian influences in a 1908 Arts and Crafts home built in Pasadena, California, for David and Mary Gamble, retiring partners in the Cincinnati company Procter and Gamble.

Also among the 17 million fairgoers was a struggling 26-year-old Chicago architect named Frank Lloyd Wright. The exposition would prove to be a watershed in Wright’s relationship with Japanese aesthetics. Although he had collected and traded Japanese prints for years, the fair was his first direct contact with Japanese buildings. Within the decade, Wright would design his first houses drawing on the deep roof overhangs and the stress on horizontal lines witnessed at the Japanese pavilion.

Today, all that remains of the Japanese pavilion are three heavily-carved wooden panels, discovered in 1976 under the bleachers of Soldier Field. These treasures were recently restored and are on display in the Japanese Gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago.

by Bruce Richardson

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Danville’s resident historian, Bruce Richardson, edited and annotated the 2011 Benjamin Press edition of Okakura Kakuzo’s original Book of Tea. Richardson is the owner of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas and Tea Master of the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum.

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