Frederick Olmsted: Landscaping the World’s Columbian Exposition

The sandy area along Chicago’s lakeshore looked more like a deserted marsh than a site for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Frederick Law Olmsted, however, saw the area’s potential. As landscape architect for the project, he got the fair committee’s permission to use this site. His design called for lagoons and what Olmsted referred to as a wooded isle, but they had not been developed yet. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, however, would give Olmsted the opportunity to create his vision. After the fair was over and the buildings torn down, a park would remain for Chicagoans to enjoy. Today this park is known as Jackson Park.

Olmsted  saw the Exposition as an opportunity to showcase landscape architecture. The work involved in designing parks did not receive the same respect as designing a building. Olmsted put all of his energy into the Chicago World’s Fair’s landscaping in the hope that his profession would be recognized as an art. He wrote, “If people generally get to understand that our contribution to the undertaking is that of the planning of the scheme, rather than the disposition of flower beds and other matters of gardening decoration, it will be a great lift to the profession.”

As landscape architect, Olmsted was responsible for planning the basic land and water shape of the fairgrounds. After consulting with the building architects, Olmsted concluded that the marshy areas of Jackson Park could be converted into waterways. Low-lying parts of the park were deepened and turned into water basins. Workers dredged sand out of the marshes to make lagoons of different sizes and shapes. The sand dug up during this process was used to raise higher areas of the park on which the fair’s buildings would later be constructed.

In addition to waterways, the original landscaping plans for the fair included a secluded piece of land that Olmsted called the Wooded Isle. The plan stated that “near the middle of this lagoon system there should be an island, about fifteen acres in area, in which there would be clusters of the largest trees growing upon the site; that this island should be free from conspicious buildings.” Olmsted created a natural setting for the island. He ensured that the best trees already on the island were fertilized and between them water plants, bushes, and young trees were planted.

Olmsted intended the island to be a place where visitors could rest and enjoy nature away from the busyness of the fair. Fairgoers appreciated Olmsted’s efforts to make nature part of the Exposition. After viewing the island, one visitor wrote that “little arms of vegetation and of land reach out here and there between tiny coves and bays, and the general effect is so natural and real that it amazes one to hear that it is not so.”

Although only a small part of the fair was dedicated to nature, Olmsted wanted the flowers and plants throughout the grounds to appear natural. A trip to the site of the earlier World’s Fair in Paris convinced Olmsted that the Chicago fair needed more natural landscaping. He thought the landscaping in Paris “must have been extremely disquieting, gaudy and childish, if not savage and an injury to the Exposition.” As a result of his observations, most of the plants at the Chicago World’s Fair came from native lakes, rivers and swamps in Illinois and Wisconsin. Workers transplanted willows, waterside plants, cattails, rushes, irises, and pond lilies on the shores of the lagoons.

When the Exposition was completed, Olmsted was at the peak of his contemporary reputation. Garden and Forest magazine stated that “the sparkle of genius which has produced a single and consistent work of art…sprang from his brain.” As a result of his work on the Exposition, landscape architecture became recognized as an art.

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