By Barbara Emery Moseley
NOTE: If you’ve missed any installments in this series, you can catch up here!
Although George Vanderbilt’s 600-room mansion “Belleville,” in Ashville, NC, still demanded attention from Richard Morris Hunt, in 1893, he also became involved in the plans for buildings at the “World’s Columbian Exposition” in Chicago. Its purpose was to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America. The city, now mostly recovered from its disastrous 1871 fire, had been chosen by Congress. There was pressure, also, to produce a structure that should surpass in every way the iconic Eiffel Tower, which had been built for the 1867 Paris Exposition.
The oversight of the massive project and the selection of architects, fell to Daniel Burnham of Chicago, an architect himself. He was told to meet with “the greatest architects America has to offer: George Post, Charles McKim, and Richard Morris Hunt.” Hunt — a scion of the Hunt family in Vernon — was the nation’s “most venerable architect,” and also “a man of legendary irascibility,” Burnham later wrote.
In December 1890, Burnham traveled to New York City by Pullman car. Unknown to him, the architects had met together, joking that the Fair would be a “cattle show.” Although Chicago was the 2nd largest city in the United States, there was also an undercurrent of superiority among the citizens of the long-established states of the East Coast.
Also, an up-and-coming writer, a British author with ties to Brattleboro, had published a scathing essay on Chicago, ending with: “Having seen it, I desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages.” (Rudyard Kipling built his home “Naulakha” in Dummerston in 1892-93.)
During the New York meeting, Hunt, the architect Burnham most wished to recruit, announced he would not take part. Post, who had studied under Hunt, persuaded him to at least listen to the proposal, and Hunt conceded. McKim opened the meeting with a wandering talk abou the Fair and its prospects. Hunt cut him off: “McKim, damn your preamble. Get down to the facts.” Hunt was fierce, a frown in a suit. He was skeptical, commenting on the full schedules of all and the reality of long-distance travel to the chosen site in Chicago. He was, however, pleased to be working with his colleague, Frederick Law Olmsted, the country’s leading landscape artist. His work included the grounds of the Capitol in Washington, DC, and the large parks in Boston and New York City.
The trip was made to Chicago, in January 1891. In the frigid Chicago air, with the wind whipping up white caps on Lake Michigan, the entourage visited the desolate site. They eased themselves from the carriages, shielding their eyes from the blowing sand.
Hunt, wincing from gout,was cursing and disbelieving. Olmsted, who suffered from inflamed, aching teeth, recurrent roaring in his ears, and limping from a long-ago carriage accident, was stunned.
What they didn’t know, at the time, was that much of the site was quicksand. Hunt was used to setting his buildings on bedrock. Would he accept such a challenge? What will surpass the Eiffel Tower?
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The answer to September’s “Reader Challenge”: Sculptor Carl Binner whimsically included the head of Richard Morris Hunt among more saintly figures embellishing the doors of Trinity Church on Wall Street.
Despite proximity to the World Trade Center, Trinity Church was unharmed by the 9-11 bombings and it served as a respite center for rescue workers.