Electrical Entrance

Otto Koch’s strongly colored Electrical Entrance focuses on the Water Gate entrance to the Electrical Building at A Century of Progress, Chicago’s 1933-1934 exposition. An asymmetrical U-shaped structure, the building was the work of New York architect Raymond Hood, while the two monumental pylons flanking the Water Gate bore sculptural reliefs by Lee Lawrie, representing light and sound. The building’s striking, black, green, and bright red exterior reflected designer Joseph Urban’s plan for the fair to be a vibrant “Rainbow City,” in contrast to the “White City” of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. In Koch’s painting, the Electrical Building glows in the afternoon sun of a summer day. It projects a shimmering reflection onto the rippled surface of the South Lagoon, where an electric launch and two gondolas ferry visitors under a fair-weather sky. The only known painting by Koch, this work reveals considerable facility, suggesting that it was not the artist’s only attempt in the medium.

Koch was one of several artists who produced paintings of the Century of Progress exposition under the name Groh Associates. Like Frank Peyraud’s Afternoon, The Science Palace, World’s Fair, this work bears on the back the Groh Associates stamp and the signatures of its two directors, Edward T. Grigware and Rudolph Ingerle. The latter made his own painting of the subject, Untitled (Electrical Building at Twilight), showing a scene almost identical to Koch’s but from a vantage point slightly to the right. The most striking difference between the two paintings, however, is in the color of the building, a cool white in Ingerle’s image. The bright hues shown by Koch disappeared after the exposition’s 1933 season under a coat of white paint that transformed the fair for its second year.

The Groh Associates’ paintings may have been intended for reproduction in color, for the color photography of the day was inadequate for conveying the vivid tints of the 1933 fair. While the exposition was open in the summer of 1934, the paintings, including Koch’s, were displayed at the Marshall Field and Company department store in an exhibition sponsored by Westinghouse Electric Company, one of the chief suppliers of electricity to the exposition. The paintings’ subjects, noted one reviewer, demonstrated “the attempt…to capture light and its phenomena.”i  The paintings were exhibited again in January and in August 1935, as A Century of Progress became the stuff of memory.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i  C. J. Bulliet, “Around the Galleries: ‘Painting by Light,’” Chicago Daily News, Aug. 25, 1934.

Over the Top in 1933 (Armistice Day)

Eager spectators line the way as three uniformed flag-bearers flanked by rifle-toting escorts and a drum major march south across Chicago’s Michigan Avenue Bridge in Jerome Klapka’s Over the Top in 1933. A fluttering Stars and Stripes dominates the center of the vertical composition; to its right is a light-colored banner displaying the emblem of the American Legion, with an unidentified dark-blue-and-gold flag between them. Rising in the background are the Tribune Tower and the Medinah Athletic Club (now part of the InterContinental Chicago Hotel), with the Wrigley Building framing the view on the left. A blue sky with billowing white clouds complements the upbeat mood of this patriotic image, in which the neutral tones of the backdrop and spectators set off the brilliant whites and blues of the marchers’ uniforms. Klapka’s solidly representational style bespeaks his training as a commercial artist. He likely painted Over the Top in 1933 in the studio from photographs or sketches made on site.

At the height of the Great Depression, as Chicago celebrated its Century of Progress Exposition, the opening of the fifteenth annual congress of the American Legion on October 3, 1933, was marked by a parade promoted as the largest ever staged in North America. Watched by crowds estimated in the hundreds of thousands, it featured a reported 120,000 military veterans, 350 bands, 200 drum corps, and 250 floats. Kicking off at the bridge at ten o’clock in the morning, the entire parade reached Soldier Field a mile and a half away after seven that evening. This “masterpiece of military precision and of civic opulence” (in the Chicago Tribune’s estimation) was intended to support President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s call for national unity during a process of economic reconstruction as urgent as national defense in wartime.i “Going over the top” was an expression used during World War I to describe abandoning the relative safety of the trenches to risk open fire on the battlefield. In Klapka’s painting, “over the top” describes one segment of the parade getting under way and, metaphorically, the nation setting out to tackle daunting economic challenges.

Over the Top in 1933 was perhaps Klapka’s best-known image. The American Legion reproduced it on brochures for its conventions in 1934 and again in 1946 and 1952. In 1936, it was reproduced on the front covers of both the Chicago Tribune’s rotogravure section and the Medinah Athletic Club members’ magazine, where it was erroneously titled Armistice Day in reference to the November 11 commemoration of the end of World War I, the holiday known since 1954 as Veterans Day.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i James O’Donnell Bennett, “Chicago Throngs Cheer March of Vets,” Chicago Tribune, Oct. 4, 1933.

Afternoon, The Science Palace, World’s Fair, 1933

Frank Peyraud’s painting shows the Hall of Science at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition. In contrast to Rudolph Ingerle’s Untitled (Hall of Science at Night), a nighttime view of the building’s north entrance, Peyraud pictured the structure from the south in the full light of afternoon, under a cloudless sky. Designed by Paul Philippe Cret, the Hall of Science was filled with wondrous displays of modern discoveries and innovations, of which Peyraud gives little hint. In his portrayal the building’s blocky form is softened by intervening trees and the bright colors of its exterior are relatively subdued, notwithstanding their echo in the broad reflecting pool in the foreground. Crowning the scene is the Carillon Tower, a 176-foot-high glass-and-steel structure from which music was played both day and night. Inspired by European modernist design, its irregular form contrasted vertical and horizontal elements, a heavy flat roof on the main section with a soaring spire on the northeast corner enlivened with colorful flags, as seen here. Just behind rises one of the two steel skeleton towers of the Sky Ride, among the exposition’s most popular attractions. A complex web of cables supported the “rocket cars” that provided a “beautiful and, mayhap, thrilling ride” to the far side of the lagoon at the heart of the fairgrounds.i Clearly visible in photographic views of the Hall of Science from the south, the cables are absent in Peyraud’s view, in which the Sky Ride tower itself is a relatively shadowy presence in the background.

By 1933 Peyraud was nearing the end of his career as a successful painter of bucolic landscapes such as Summer Evening. The Century of Progress exposition represented a departure from his usual subjects. Yet it also drew on his earliest professional training—as an architect—and his first significant painting experience—as a contributor to cycloramas, enormous paintings-in-the-round that called for skills in perspective and in the composition of large-scale scenes. Afternoon, The Science Palace, World’s Fair also conformed to Peyraud’s long-practiced style, a conservative brand of impressionism that combined broken brushwork with a concern for structured composition and firmly defined forms.

Afternoon, The Science Palace, World’s Fair is one of a group of images of the Century of Progress exposition created by artists working under the name Groh Associates. Their paintings of the fair, which also included Otto Koch’s Electrical Entrance, were intended to record the brilliant color and advanced lighting technologies that were among the most striking features of the exposition. Peyraud’s canvas may have been among the group when it was exhibited at the Marshall Field and Company department store in Chicago during the 1934 fair season.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i Official Guide: Book of the Fair 1933 (Chicago: A Century of Progress Administration Buildings, [1933]), 121.

Untitled (Hall of Science at Night)

In Rudolph Ingerle’s brightly colored image, visitors stroll by the Hall of Science, one of the most important and popular buildings of the Century of Progress exposition, held in Chicago in 1933–1934. The work of architect Paul Philippe Cret, the building featured on its north façade a semicircle of piers interleaved with recessed walls, illuminated at night with lights of varying colors. Positioned in front was a monumental sculpted male figure by John Storrs representing man combatting ignorance, part of an ensemble that appears gold, white, and blue in Ingerle’s painting. The portable medium of this small work and its casual rendering of figures and other foreground features in quick strokes of pigment suggest that it was painted on site. Official photographs and more formal paintings of the fair, such as Frank C. Peyraud’s Afternoon, The Science Palace, World’s Fair 1933, focus on its strikingly modernist architecture; this interpretation, in contrast, takes the perspective of an ordinary fairgoer.

The Century of Progress fair boasted what is considered the first large-scale use of color as an integral part of an architectural plan. Emphasizing new technologies, the exposition also made extensive use of artificial lighting, including colored lights that at night enhanced the effect of a “Rainbow City.” With color photography in its infancy, artists’ renderings were still preferred as a means of capturing the strong tints of the exteriors of many of the buildings. Ingerle was one of a group of artists hired to make paintings of the fair. He created a set of small images that also includes Untitled (Electrical Building at Twilight). According to the Chicago Tribune, Ingerle showed these “sketches” of the Century of Progress on February 28, 1936, at Chicago’s Cliff Dwellers club, of which he was a member.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Untitled (Electrical Building at Twilight)

Painted at Chicago’s 1933–1934 Century of Progress exposition, this work pictures the Electrical Building from across the South Lagoon, part of a body of water that separated an artificial island created for the fair (today’s Northerly Island) from the city’s shoreline along Lake Michigan. In Peyraud’s image, a covered gondola approaches the landing known as the Water Gate, with its twin 100-plus-foot pylons dedicated to light and to sound. On the right the moon, rising in the pastel-tinted eastern sky, glows through beacons projected from the building’s roof. With its harmonious palette of limpid blues and lavender and its distant perspective, the twilight scene is serene, even elegiac. It evokes a timeless world far removed from the reality of the fair, with its bustling crowds and displays of the latest technology. Even the gondola seems deserted as it glides across the lagoon’s rippling but reflective surface.

Throughout its buildings and grounds, the Century of Progress exposition showcased advances in lighting technology in extravagant applications of artificial illumination, notably on the exterior of the so-called Electrical Group. The striated wall flanking the Water Gate was a curved array of “cascades” of gaseous tubing that created a virtual waterfall of light at night; the nearby Morning Glory fountain contained underwater floodlights that slowly changed color under jets of water for a brilliant evening show; and the rooftop’s seventeen movable searchlights projected twenty-one million candlepower of light into the darkened sky, comprising the largest set of incandescent beams ever assembled.

In his painting, Ingerle conspicuously muted these engineered effects, however, and the twilight setting and distant perspective further transform the scene into a fantasy inspired by mythology and remote pasts. This was not entirely the artist’s interpretation, for even the Electrical Group had its retrospective elements. In form and scale the Water Gate echoed ancient Assyrian, Egyptian, and Greek monumental architecture, while Aztec design inspired Lee Lawrie’s decorative relief sculptures on the pylons. Visitors approaching the Water Gate in gondolas could imagine themselves in faraway Venice. Moreover, by the time Ingerle painted this work, during the fair’s 1934 season, the strong color of the Electrical Group recorded by Frederic M. Grant in The Fountain, Electrical Building had been subdued under a coat of white paint, furthering the association with the marble temples and palaces of idealized antiquity. Ingerle’s romantic take on the Electrical Building was also consistent with the current direction of his painting: by the late 1920s, when he had come to strongly identify with tradition and conservatism both politically and artistically, he was painting rural American landscapes and their inhabitants as subjects uncontaminated by modernity.

Ingerle was one of a group of artists, known as Groh Associates, commissioned to make paintings of the Century of Progress fair with a focus on its unprecedented architectural use of color and light. His group of small painted sketches, all on lightweight, portable canvas board and likely made on site, also included a depiction of the Morning Glory Fountain seen at a closer range.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

The Fountain, Electrical Building

Positioning the viewer on the plaza created by the horseshoe form of the Electrical Building at Chicago’s Century of Progress exposition, Frederic M. Grant’s The Fountain, Electrical Building takes a close-up perspective on the massive building, in contrast to the distant views painted by Rudolph Ingerle and Otto Koch. On the left is a section of the curved back-and-white striated wall whose tube lights created a “waterfall” of light at night, and to the right rises a monumental male figure representing atomic energy, one of the façade’s two forty-foot-high bas-relief sculptures designed by architect Raymond Hood. The building’s contrasting colors form a dramatic backdrop for a crowd of visitors, including a well-dressed couple, a woman under a bright red parasol, and throngs of children dressed in summertime white. Dominating the scene is the so-called Morning Glory Fountain at the plaza’s center. At night its towering trumpet-shaped canopy of chromium-plated hand-hammered copper reflected colored floodlights projected through the cascading water, enhancing their glow. Noted as a “decorative” painter, Grant treated the scene with his characteristic all-over texturing of the paint surface and firm delineation of forms, within a balanced, nearly square format.

The Electrical Building’s futuristic displays of light were most impressive at night, but Grant elected to show it in daytime to highlight the brilliant tints of the building’s exterior. The exposition was innovative throughout in its large-scale use of color as an integral part of its architectural plan. Famed as a colorist, Grant seemed particularly suited to the task of recording its striking hues. The Fountain, Electrical Building was one of a group of twenty-one views of the exposition he painted in 1933, the first of its two consecutive seasons. Grant worked on the paintings in his studio from watercolor studies executed on site, and he gave many of the canvases titles that reflect their dominant color. Both the studies and the finished paintings were exhibited in a well-received solo show at Anderson Galleries in Chicago in the winter of 1934. The conservative Grant was not the only artist to paint the fair, but even in the opinion of critic Clarence J. Bulliet, a champion of modernism, he was the most successful: “the one painter who caught and fixed as a genuine ‘art expression’ the jazz-made riot of color,” Grant conveyed in his paintings “the ‘emotional content’ of the exposition, along with the ocular.”i

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i C. J. Bulliet, “Artists of Chicago Past and Present. No. 62: Frederic Milton Grant,” Chicago Daily News, Apr. 25, 1936.