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Communications and Marketing

Rebecca Graff in Chicago Tribune

Assistant Professor of Anthropology Rebecca Graff was recently quoted in a Chicago Tribune article about the placement of the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago’s Jackson Park—the same site where the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 was held.

Artifacts from 1893 World’s Fair found beneath Obama center site, but report signals construction won’t be blocked

By Blair Kamin

Archaeologists turned up remnants of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the fabled White City that drew millions of visitors to Chicago’s Jackson Park, as they scoured the site of the Obama Presidential Center and nearby parkland as part of the federal review of plans for the proposed complex.

Among the artifacts are pieces of fair buildings — including red fragments that could be from one of the fair’s most notable structures, the multicolored Transportation Building by architect Louis Sullivan — and shards of cups and saucers that bear the mark of Chase and Sanborn, the fair’s official coffee supplier.

The archaeologists also discovered animal bones, most of which they identified as waste associated with food eaten at the fair. But they dangled the possibility that some of the bones might belong to camels and reindeer that were part of the exotic attractions that lined the fair’s Midway. The creatures are said to have died during the event.

While the findings may excite history buffs and readers of “The Devil in the White City,” Erik Larson’s best-selling account of the fair, state officials who oversaw the archaeological survey say the artifacts don’t provide significant new knowledge about Jackson Park and therefore don’t merit listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The granting of such status could have slowed approval and construction of the Obama center, which is simultaneously being reviewed by city and federal authorities.

“People may be interested in those bits and pieces, but just because they’re these historical curiosities doesn’t make them eligible for the National Register,” said Brad Koldehoff, chief archaeologist for the Illinois Department of Transportation.

If state historic preservation officials concur with the report’s recommendations, it will eliminate one regulatory hurdle for the Obama Foundation, the nonprofit charged with building the privately funded, $500 million center. The findings will be presented Thursday during a public meeting at the University of Chicago. At the meeting, officials also will discuss a new inventory of historic properties that the center will affect — a more contentious subject than the archaeological report, given that opponents of the center have charged it will desecrate the park’s Frederick Law Olmsted-designed landscape, which is already on the National Register.

IDOT undertook the archaeological study on behalf of the Federal Highway Administration, the lead federal agency in the Obama center’s construction. Federal environmental and historic preservation laws mandate that U.S. agencies examine the impact of proposed plans on historic buildings and sites. Chicago officials have pegged the cost of taxpayer-funded roadwork and underpass construction needed to support the center at $175 million. The Tribune reviewed a draft a copy of the 237-page report, which was posted online in advance of the meeting.

Late last year, researchers for the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) dug into seven sites in 543-acre Jackson Park and the eastern end of the Midway Plaisance, which was then the projected site of the center’s parking garage. Their goal was to determine if significant materials rested beneath the surface. In January, after the fieldwork was completed, the Obama Foundation shifted the planned garage to an underground site within the borders of the center’s 19-acre site, which is southwest of the Museum of Science and Industry.

To the researchers’ disappointment, according to people involved with the survey, they found nothing resembling the buried Roman city of Pompeii — no building foundations, no statuary, no intact columns from the exposition’s grand ensemble of monumental yet temporary buildings. But the researchers did turn up 9,841 artifacts, among them nails, spoons, buttons, bottles and a fan-shaped brass Japanese necklace that probably was made in the 1940s and lost by an anonymous parkgoer.

Many of the artifacts lay below the Obama center’s parcel, according to the archaeological report, which was co-written by ISAS’ Clare Tolmie and Paula Porubcan Branstner. On one of the sites, located on the center’s south end, the archaeologists found a lode of building fragments made of “staff,” a mixture of plaster and other materials that covered the exposition’s structures and was painted white to simulate stone.

Most of the staff pieces are white, but the finds include eight pieces of red-colored staff and a fragment of amber-colored stained glass that are probably remnants of Sullivan’s Transportation Building, the report says. The reddish building and its monumental golden entryway, which offered a deliberate contrast to the fair’s white neoclassical buildings, stood near what is now the Obama center site.

Tim Samuelson, Chicago’s official cultural historian and an expert on Sullivan’s architecture, said the materials could help determine the exact colors of the Transportation Building and even the shades of the white buildings in the White City. Because the fair occurred in an era of black-and-white photography and “unreliable color imagery,” he said, historians have yet to determine what its colors were with precision.

As “The Devil in the White City” made clear, the fair was more than a tourist attraction. At a time when cities were booming, it was a model of how urban planning could make them more livable. It boasted harmoniously arranged buildings, electric lights that showcased those buildings and dazzled visitors who had never experienced such technology, and an incinerator that was capable of destroying 100 tons of garbage a day.

In Jackson Park’s southeast corner, once home to that incinerator, the archaeologists found myriad animal bones — most of them burned and thought to be remnants of food people ate during the fair. The report also speculates on “the remote possibility that the remains of two camels and five reindeer that died during the World’s Fair … are included” among the bones.

Peter Strazzabosco, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Planning and Development, said the archaeologists had not identified any camel or reindeer bones, but were referring to published accounts about the deaths of exotic animals that were among the exposition’s attractions. At the fair’s Midway, home of the first Ferris wheel and built on what is now the Midway Plaisance, the Streets of Cairo concession offered camel rides (as well as the gyrations of the belly dancer Little Egypt) while the Lapland Village, one of several ethnograhic attractions, displayed reindeer.

Also in Jackson Park’s southeast corner, the archaeologists found graphite rods from lamps used to illuminate the fairgrounds and its buildings, as well as fragments of cups and saucers that bear the mark of Chase and Sanborn’s “Seal Brand” Coffee. Although they are broken bits, the ceramic pieces strike an emotional chord, said Rebecca Graff, an assistant anthropology professor at Lake Forest College who did Jackson Park archaeological digs for her dissertation.

“The scale (of the fair) changes,” said Graff, who recently saw the artifacts firsthand at an ISAS facility in Elgin. “It becomes something very human-scaled, that you can interact with in a different way. It’s sort of like you’re communing with something.”

Noting that former President Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, was an anthropologist, Graff urged that the Obama center present an exhibit of the artifacts in its museum tower, in order to make a connection between the World’s Fair of 1893 and the center. “It’s an obvious connection and an important one,” she said. “Like the fair, (the center) will bring people from all over the world to this site.”

The Obama Foundation, which had been expected to seek approval from the Chicago Plan Commission in April, but now is likely to do so in May, wants to break ground on the center late this year and open the facility in 2021. The heart of the center would consist of the museum tower, a forum building containing an auditorium and a third structure that could be home to a Chicago Public Library branch.

–The Chicago Tribune, March 25, 2018