The 1893 World's Fair and the golden statue of Jackson Park

December 23, 2011

I first stumbled on her in 1965, the night of my Senior Prom. The prom was at a downtown hotel. Afterward my date and I, along with two other couples, decided to go for a drive south on Lake Shore Drive.

We got to Jackson Park and turned down a side road, preparing to head back north. And there, in front of us in the darkness, illuminated by floodlights, was a towering golden statue of a Greek goddess. "What the hell is that?" we gasped.

If we'd been South Siders, we might have known. The statue is called The Republic, and is a souvenir of the 1893 World's Fair.

The 24-foot tall statue in the park is a replica. The original was nearly three times larger, a 65-foot colossa atop a 35-foot base. That version was made of plaster covered in gold leaf. Daniel Chester French, today best-known for his seated Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, was the designer.

When the Fair was over, The Republic was scrapped. A smaller plaster model was retained.

The story resumes in 1918, the centennial year of Illinois statehood. By coincidence it was also the 25th anniversary of the Fair. Someone got the idea of restoring The Republic in Jackson Park. There was still some money left over from the Fair, and the B.F. Ferguson Monument Fund also chipped in.

The current statue was dedicated on May 11, 1918. Unlike its predecessor, this one is made of bronze. Every few years the gold covering wears thin, and the surface has to be regilded.

Park District employees created their own urban legend about the gold covering. Each summer, when a new group of temps came on the job, the veterans would tell the rookies how they made sure the statue weathered evenly--they simply turned the thing 180-degrees. If the statue was facing east now, next year it would be facing west.

The Republic weighs about 100 tons. But many of the summer temps accepted the outrageous tale of annual rotation. Hey, it's Chicago!

I see the Golden Lady looming over the clubhouse whenever I play golf at Jackson Park. The neighborhood has gotten a lot rougher since 1965, and I don't venture back at night. I imagine she still looks spectacular.