For those of you interested in Architectural History, there was an event in this country in 1893 that influenced the Architecture of America more than any other since. This event, held in Chicago, commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the New World. It was known as the Colombian Exposition, or more simply, the Chicago World's Fair of 1893.
Before the fair ever happened, it was a big deal to even win the rights to have the fair. Chicago and New York fought for more than a year to see who would host. When Chicago was chosen in 1891, it seemed almost an impossible task to design all of the necessary buildings in so short a time. The effort was lead by Architects Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root (Root died before the grounds were completed) and they enlisted the best and brightest of their day to participate in the designs of the Buildings and Grounds. Included among them were Louis Sullivan, McKim Meade and White, Frederick Law Olmstead, and George B. Post among others. Now, I won't go into details about the fair itself, but I will say that the aesthetic was decidedly Classical. Columns and pillars as far as the eye could see and all at a scale that was more impressive than Disneyland. In fact, the buildings were so amazing that it brought in over 1 million people a day at its peak. That may not seem like a lot, but this was 1893, in the middle of a severe recession, and the only way to travel cross country with any speed was by train. Considering the circumstances, this was impressive.
A by product of the Fair's success was the creation of a new style of civic architecture. People were so taken with the Neoclassical revival that practically every big city adopted the same Architectural Language for the creation of their public buildings. From state capitals to banks to libraries, many new large projects constructed after the fair bore strikingly similar profiles to those in the Colombian Exposition. Now this is not to say that Classical Architecture was not used before, just not at the same scale as after the 1893 Fair. Even the United States Capitol Building in Washington DC was expanded (in 1904) to reflect a grander scale for a rapidly growing nation. Downtowns in every major city were bustling with new buildings and a cohesive Architecture that gave people Civic Pride and a sense of unity in their towns.
Now I don't have to tell you what happened next. In the middle of the 20th century, downtowns and Main Streets were being abandoned for the suburbs with tract houses and strip malls. People moved out of cities at an alarming rate and many great cities died as a result of this. Beautiful turn of the century buildings were torn down as developers moved in and bought up city blocks to build office buildings. The city became a place of business, not a place to live. McKim Meade and White's Pennsylvania Station was torn down in 1963 to build Madison Square Garden and One Penn Plaza and it's limestone columns were sent to the swamps of New Jersey where they still lay buried in the muck.
Fortunately, time heals all wounds. Main Streets are being re-discovered for their irreplaceable Architecture and the benefits of city living. Where I live, the most expensive towns to live in are the ones with beautiful historic downtowns where new restaurants and boutiques are thriving. This has always been a country where you have choices. It seems we are always at a crossroads waiting to choose. So with the national economy in the toilet, and the McMansion housing bubble burst, the question is this: Can it be possible for future generations to rediscover a smaller, higher quality lifestyle or will Walmart wipe out every store in the country? I think you know which way I'm leaning.