By Barbara Emery Moseley
NOTE: This series chronicles the generations of Vernon’s Hunt family, all related to Jonathan Hunt of “Governor Hunt Road” fame. If you’ve missed any installments in this series, you can catch up here!
When Congress chose Chicago as the Columbian Exposition site over other contenders, including New York, St. Louis, and Philadelphia, the Chicago Committee received a telegram from Chauncey Depew. He was U.S. Congressman from New York, lawyer for the Vanderbilts, president of the New York Central Railroad, and one of the most witty and celebrated speakers of the day. The message, part of a letter also sent to the Chicago Tribune, warned: “Chicago is like the man who marries a woman with a ready-made family of twelve; the trouble has just begun.” His comment proved to have hit the nail on the head.
Burnham, who had convinced Richard Morris Hunt to be chief architect of the Exposition, and Frederick Law Olmsted its landscape designer, had expected to rely on his charismatic business partner, John Root, for help on the massive project. However, Root died of pneumonia just as preparation of the site was to begin. At least, the two, along with Hunt, had figured out how to combat the quicksand of Jackson Park, making it suitable for the erection of massive buildings.
The solution was to excavate down to a somewhat solid layer, called hardpan. A two-foot-thick pad of concrete would be poured. Next, a layer of steel rails stretching the length of the pad would be laid, followed by another layer of rails placed in the other direction. Several succeeding layers of rails were added, up to the ground level. The “grillage” they formed was filled with Portland cement. The smooth top surface became the basement floor of the building, and provided dry space for the boilers and dynamos.
With time slipping by, Richard Morris Hunt abandoned his original idea to have all the Fair buildings built of stone, steel, and white-painted brick. Instead, he turned to heavy wooden and steel frameworks, which were to be covered with “staff.” It was a mixture of plaster and jute that could be spread over a wood or metal framework, could be molded into columns and carved into statues, giving the impression of stone. Then, a mixture of “ordinary white lead and oil” was oiled , not by brush, but through a hose with a special nozzle … “the first spray paint.”
Chief among problems confronting Burnham was the threat of disease. Foreign editors were already reminding readers of Chicago’s notorious problems with sewage. In 1885, contaminated water and resulting typhoid and cholera had killed ten percent of the city’s population. (Congressman Jonathan Hunt had died of cholera, in Washington, DC, when Richard Morris Hunt was barely four years old. In 1847, a young woman died of cholera in Vernon—a sad love story to be told in this series in the coming year.) The Fair’s sanitary engineer built a water sterilization plant that aerated and boiled lake water. Big casks of this water were located throughout the grounds and refilled daily.
Burnham finally approved the plans of the “thing” destined to make the 984 feet of the Eiffel Tower look like a child’s toy. Its “descendants” are in fairgrounds throughout this country and around the world. Included is Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Disney’s father, Elias, helped build the White City. By now, you must have guessed …