Annual Meeting

“Fetching up the Genii”: Historians and the City

Gerald A. Danzer, December 1994

Chicago, according to Mark Twain, was "a city where they are always rubbing the lamp, and fetching up the genie, and contriving and achieving new impossibilities." Some of the magic has disappeared in the last generation or so, but the city between the lake and the prairie still offers a fascinating perspective on the American experience and urbanism as a way of life. Historians visiting Chicago would do well to burnish the old vessel and look carefully about them to observe some of the treasures embedded in the geographic setting of their annual meeting.

Mark Twain opened his account of Life on the Mississippi in the 1870s with the dictum that the river was "well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river." Chicago, he concluded at the end of the book, fit into the same category. Indeed, as recent scholars like William Cronon have reminded us, the fortunes of the metropolis and the river basin were tied together.

Historians look for change, and in this respect Chicago's first dozen decades or so made it a historian's city par excellence. "It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago," Twain concluded, for she outgrows the genii's prophecies "faster than he can make them." The pace of change has slowed down in recent years as the population of the city has dipped and the growth of the metropolitan area has leveled off to about 7 million people.

But the pace of modern life has kept the region in flux so that the conclusion Twain reached more than a century ago still applies. Chicago "is always a novelty, for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time."

The historian's task, of course, is not only to discern the new elements revealed in the contemporary scene, but to hold on to the slices of times past and then connect them into a narrative explaining the forces that produce change. Chicago thus can be considered a visual archive, an artifact packing great explanatory power. That is one reason for the location's great appeal to historians, and the local arrangements committee will make every effort to help visitors read the cityscape with discerning eyes.

Staging the convention in two landmark hotels six blocks apart offers an opportunity for visitors to quickly develop a "beat" on the urban pathways between them. A detailed walking guide featuring maps and documents on this passage will be available at the registration desk. The route cuts through a section of the city filled with major cultural institutions, landmark buildings, and historic sites. Whether they travel between sessions by shuttle bus, taxi, or on foot, convention attendees will soon claim this segment of the city as a special window on urban life and American culture.

Not much can be done about Chicago's weather in early January; one always takes chances in a continental climate during the winter. The temperatures could range over 80 degrees Fahrenheit, from -20 up into the 60s. The average temperature of 24 makes it the region's coldest month. Chicagoans can also expect about 10 inches of snowfall and two inches of rainfall during the month.

When the American Historical Association first met in Chicago, at the Art Institute on July 11–13, 1893, attendees sat in the summer heat to deliberate on 33 papers, only 23 of which were read. The "others were contributed to the proceedings and were read by title." This allowed enough time for a committee to address a resolution encouraging Congress to establish a department of archives, for visits to the Columbian Exposition to see the historical collections in La Rabida, and, no doubt, to explore other parts of the city as well. After all, the secretary's summary of Prof. F. J. Turner's paper ended with the comment that as the travelers then crossed the continent west to east, "the United States could show the hunting stage, the pastoral stage, the agricultural stage, and the manufacturing stage." The place where the latter two met was right outside the convention's door.

In 1995 we proposed to hold the location constant, viewing change over time by using the site as a palimpsest. By supplying a selection of old maps and views, the local arrangements committee will help everyone ask the historical question: "What time is this place?"

Note the illustration of the Chicago lakefront from the Illustrated London News in 1863. The artist stood on the tracks at about the location where Turner spoke. The railroad today passes under the Art Institute. A decade later, the water on the artist's left was filled in with the rubble cleared away after the Chicago fire.

Thus Lake Park, today's Grant Park, appears on the detail of a print Currier and Ives issued in 1892 in anticipation of the World's Fair. The tall building in the center, facing the park, is the Auditorium, still standing midway between the two convention hotels and now housing Roosevelt University. A careful viewer could locate the predecessor of the Palmer House and the site of the Hilton Hotel. Find the iron and glass Exposition Building in the park. The low structure behind it, hidden by the south turret, was the Palmer House stables, a necessary adjunct to a first-class hostelry a century ago.

In the year that separated the 1892 lithograph and Turner's paper, Chicago rubbed the genii's lamp and replaced the old-fashioned Exposition Building with a smart new Renaissance palace designed by architects from the East. During the fair, the building housed the various congresses and professional meetings held in conjunction with the Columbian celebration. After the fair was over, the building became the Art Institute of Chicago.

The baseball field north of the Exposition Building was as old as the park and led to Chicago's central role in the development of professional sports. The changing city this year features a new stadium for professional basketball and hockey. Closer to the convention site, historians can find other entertainments, perhaps enjoying a concert of Schumann, Rachmaninov, and Tchaikovsky at Orchestra Hall. The Art Institute, across the street, will be featuring a series of exhibitions, including William Hogarth's series, A Rake's Progress, which inspired Igor Stravinsky to write his opera after he viewed these prints in Chicago in 1948. The Lyric Opera Company's performance of Rake has been completed. Historians lucky enough to get tickets on January 7 will have to settle for Aida.

The theater scene in Chicago is very lively; several dozen professional productions will be available. A variety of museums and libraries will have special exhibitions to complement their regular collections. The Chicago Historical Society has several exhibitions that will be of interest to historians (see the boxed feature), and the Newberry Library's "The Frontier in American Culture," featuring Frederick Jackson Turner, will be available until January 7.

A visit to the Skydeck on top of the Sears Tower will provide an excellent view of the city. A knowledgeable historian could locate the sites for Chicago's 25 national political conventions as well as the United Center, which will host the Democratic gathering in 1996. The view from the Hancock Building on North Michigan Avenue is equally rewarding. The short journey up the so-called "Miracle Mile" will take one past the region's most prestigious shopping district. Bring your credit cards as well as your cameras.

If the weather outside proves to be too cold, there are a host of interior scenes to enjoy. Take mosaics for example. Those in the lobbies of the Auditorium, designed by Louis Sullivan, are part of a splendid interior setting. The Marquette Building, a block from the Palmer House uses a series of mosaics to recreate the French and Indian period of Chicago history. The old Chicago Public Library on Michigan Avenue, now the Cultural Center, is filled with Tiffany glass arranged to celebrate books and reading.

And then there is one of Tiffany's largest installations in the Marshall Field store on State Street. It took 50 artisans a year and a half to install 1.6 million pieces of glass in the celebrated dome.

D. H. Burnham and Company served as the architect for the major buildings that comprise Field's flagship store. At the time, however, Daniel Burnham was turning to city planning and completed the celebrated Plan of Chicago several years later.

Studying the life and work of Burnham is a convenient way to tie together various aspects of Chicago history, and the local arrangements committee will offer a detailed walking tour guide on Daniel Burnham's Chicago. The itinerary features 20 stops along a two-mile route that begins at the Art Institute and ends at the Hull House. Here, on Chicago's West Side, the restaurants of Greektown are close at hand so one can see the sights, eat, and then catch a bus, train, or taxi for the short ride back to the hotel.

Anyone who wishes to have a convenient guidebook to the city's architecture should consider purchasing the AIA Guide to Chicago published by Harcourt Brace & Company in 1993. A whole bookstore devoted to Chicago architecture can be found in the Railway Exchange Building, a landmark erected by D. H. Burnham & Co. across the street from the Art Institute. The architect built a penthouse on the roof to provide an overall view of the city when working on the Plan of Chicago.

For those who would like to have a guided introduction to the architecture of the Central Business District, nearby houses of worship, several neighborhoods, or the elevated railway system, six tours will be offered on a fee basis. (See the following box for details.)

Several scholars have encouraged us to see Chicago as a process rather than a place. Perhaps it is instructive to follow both leads when you attend the annual meeting. To see both the particulars of the place as well as the processes of change that bring them to life is to rub the lamp and fetch up Mark Twain's genii. His home, I am informed, is in one of the lamps, cast as globes with eagles on top, from America's imperial age. These lighted the grand stairway to Daniel Burnham's old office in the Railway Exchange Building. They are on our beat, between the Palmer House and the Hilton, across the street from Turner's lectern and the treasures of the Art Institute. He promises to help us all contrive and achieve "new impossibilities," if we rub the lamp in the proper way. We hope you can join us in the magical city.

—Gerald A. Danzer teaches history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and is chair of the local arrangements committee for the 1995 annual meeting.