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The Beacon of Progess: A Skyscraper that never was

When preparations were underway for the World’s Fair in 1893, everyone wanted something that would top the Eiffel Tower in Paris. They eventually went with the giant Ferris Wheel (three times the size of the one now at Navy Pier in diameter), but the obvious choice before they landed on that was to simply make a building taller than the Eiffel. Indeed, Eiffel offered to build another tower that was pretty much the same as the one he’d done in Paris, only taller. They turned him down – but the fair as it stood inspired a building concept that could have put Eiffel to shame.

At the right stands The Beacon of Progress, a design created by Constant-Desire Despradelle. It would have had 13 obelisks (representing the original colonies) merging into a single spire 1500 feet tall – a little taller than the Sears Tower / Willis Tower / Big Black Willie. The top – above what you see in the picture – would have looked about like the Washington Monument. The French approved the design and actually made plans to build it in Jackson Park to commemorate the fair seven years after it ended.

Contrary to common misconception, it wasn’t designed FOR the fair – Despradelle simply visited the fair and was so awed by its splendor that he started to work on a design for a giant spire to commemorate it. Most of the drawings weren’t made until a few years later. They’re really works of art in themselves.

In 1900, the Tribune announced that the monument would be built using funds from private subscriptions. However, obviously, nothing came of it – Despradelle’s name doesn’t come up in the Trib again until his death in 1912. In any case, by 1900, traffic at the fairgrounds was basically dead. Enough work went into figuring out what the cost would be etc, was done to show that this was certainly something intended to be built, not just an academic exercise in designing a cool building, but it’s hard to fathom what in the world we’d have done with such a tower in that location is hard to fathom – but the base was to house a massive ampitheatre where, Despradelle suggested, “orators and savants” could inspire crowds. Can you imagine how awesome that would have been as a venue for rock music?

More info from MIT:

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