Before McCormick Place- in 1872 the largest Exposition building on the continent!

Some 87 years before McCormick Place,  Chicago had a grand exposition building. On September 25, 1872 the Chicago Interstate Industrial Exposition building opened on Michigan Avenue, now the site of the Art Institute. This huge convention center opened just two years after the great Chicago fire destroying over 17,000 buildings.

The “Glass Palace” as it was known, was to show how much the city had recovered following the great fire. It was billed as “the largest structure ever built on the American continent” with 220,000 square feet of exhibit space. It held that title until the 1893 world’s fair where the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts building was built even seven times bigger.

The architect was William W. Boyington born July 22, 1818 in Massachusetts learned his trade as a young man in New York. He trained first as a carpenter, then studied engineering and architecture. He is well known for many buildings such as the Board of trade, Joliet penitentiary, Sherman House, the state capital at Springfield, as well as the national historic landmark Rosehill Cemetery entrance in 1864 and the Chicago Water Tower in 1869.

Actually there was a convention hall built in Chicago as early as 1860. It was a temporary wooden structure known as the “Wigwam” to attract 30,000 to the Republican national convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln for president. But the interstate industrial exposition building was Chicago’s first real convention center.

At a cost of $280,000 and built in only 90 days, the building dominated Chicago’s lakefront, standing along 800 feet of Michigan Avenue between Adams and Jackson and 240 feet along Adams. It was located on the grounds of where the current Art Institute of Chicago now stands. The main entrance was on Adams Street. On the side facing Lake Michigan there were two entrances on either side of a carriage exit. There were three domes patterned after exposition buildings in London and New York. The center dome was 140 feet in height. There were two other domes, one each at the north and south end of the building. With the exception of the bricks in the main walls the building was composed of glass and iron.

The exhibition building was divided into eight major sections, each representing a category of manufacturing, fine arts, sciences or services. In addition to the massive exhibit space, The four-story building contained offices and art hall, a musician’s Gallery, a branch post office, Western Union, and express companies. There was a $.50 admission for adults,  $.25 on Saturdays

Both the Republican and Democratic parties held their 1884 conventions in the building. Grover Cleveland became president as a result of that election.

A steam elevator was to be placed in one of the domes affording an excellent view of the city. An amateur astronomer had placed a powerful telescope on the balcony. Unlike McCormick Place, there were dozens of gas burners for lighting hanging from the ceiling.

Many hotels and restaurants benefited from this new convention center. There was the Leland Hotel close by . Just to the south of Michigan and Jackson was the hotel Gardner House. At Wabash and Jackson was the Matteson House. Hotels charged as much as $2 to $4.50 per night. Many boarding houses charged $3-10 per week.

The exposition building was designed to last only two years but it was torn down with great difficulty twenty years later in 1892 to allow construction of the Art Institute. “With the announcement of the fair to be held in 1892–93, the Art Institute pressed for a building on the lakefront to be constructed for the fair, but to be used by the institute afterwards. The city agreed, and the building was completed in time for the second year of the fair ” which itself was south of 55th street.

Only one thing survived the demolition. In the center of the hall and below the 60 foot diameter grand dome was a spectacular 40 foot diameter fountain built in 1872 by the J.W. Fiske Iron Works in New York City at a cost of $5000. 

In September 1892 H.F Bucklin, a  Chicago medicine manufacturer and owner of the Whitcomb hotel in St. Joseph Michigan purchased the fountain for only $500 and first set it up in Michigan near the Pottawatomie burial ground. In 1974 it was refurbished by St. Joseph City and the Fort Miami Heritage Society and placed in Lake Bluff Park in St. Joseph Michigan, renamed the Maids of the Mist fountain. It quickly became a St. Joseph landmark, also known as the “Stone Maidens”.  

This beautiful fountain is graced by two life-size female figures named Constance and Hope named in the late 1930’s by local historian Calvin “Tad” Preston.

The architect William W. Boyington, died October 16, 1898 (aged 80) in Highland Park, Illinois. He is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery. Fittingly, his funeral procession passed through the historic Rose Hill gate entrance that he himself designed 34 years earlier.

2 thoughts on “Before McCormick Place- in 1872 the largest Exposition building on the continent!”

  1. Informative. The reference to Boyington gave me an idea for finding images online of Sherman House lobby c 1903.

    Have made a note to learn why tear-down was challenging.


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