Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 293 – Painted Scenery for the State Buildings at the Columbian Exposition

Part 293: Painted Scenery for the State Buildings at the Columbian Exposition
Thomas G. Moses painted scenery for the Kansas State Building at the Columbian Exposition. He created a painted panorama scene depicting the state’s landscape that wrapped around the top of the rotunda.
Painted panorama in Kansas State Building by Thomas G. Moses in 1893 for the Columbian Exposition.
Interior photograph of Kansas State Building with top painted panorama by Thomas G. Moses in 1893 for the Columbian Exposition.
The world fair was open from May 1 to October 30, 1893; 179 days to the public, including all Sundays, except 4 that were reserved for special events (May 7, May 14, May 21, and July 23). 21,480,140 people were recorded to have attended the event over the course of six months. The fairgrounds covered 686.1 acres of what is now Chicago’s Jackson Park.
International participants included fifty nations and 26 colonies. In additional to international displays, there were buildings constructed to showcase the major resources of U. S. States and its joint territories, spending $6,200,000 on their exhibits, today’s equivalent of $160,685,377.00. The Kansas State Building was one of the first State Buildings to be completed, and the first to be dedicated.
Illustration of Kansas State Building at the 1893 World Fair.
Photograph of the Kansas State Building at the 1893 World Fair.
Stereoscope card of the 1893 Kansas State Building in Chicago for the Columbian Exposition.
Other State Buildings included Arkansas, Iowa, Ohio, California, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, South Dakota, Connecticut, Louisiana, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Texas, Delaware, Maryland, Utah, Michigan, Florida, Minnesota, Virginia, Missouri, West Virginia, Montana, Vermont, New York, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Washington, New Jersey, Idaho, Nebraska, Illinois, North Dakota, and Indiana.
Interior decoration in the Illinois State Building for the Columbian Exposition in 1893.
Seymour Davis, of Topeka, was the architect of the Kansas State Building, costing nearly $30,000 to construct. The structure was made entirely of materials from Kansas and decorated with the state’s native grains. The bas-reliefs on the exterior tower depicted scenes when the Kansas when admitted into the Union in 1861. The building used a cruciform plan, measuring 135 feet by 140 feet. There were four flights of stairs that lead to the second floor with rooms that included a woman’s exhibit, in addition to parlors for men and women. Various sources reported that the Kansas State Building stood out as “a wonderful shining example of progress and independence.”
One of many commemorative pins. Like many States, there was a “Kansas Week” at the World Fair that commenced September 11, 1893.
Interestingly, Gene Meier recently sent information pertaining to the California State Building at the Columbian Exposition. It is also worthwhile to look at the painted decoration from another state building to provide context for Moses’ own painted project. The California State Building was massive compared to the Kansas State Building.
Meier’s research shows that Reed & Gross Panorama Company of Chicago created several large canvases for the exhibit building, located on the north and east walls of the gallery. Howard H. Gross had held business contacts in California since the 1880s and it was understandable that he would be a major contender for the contract. Gross also worked with many of the Moses’ contemporaries and close friends, such as scenic artists Peyraud and Vincent. Again, lots of work and artists that switched studios like their socks.
Howard H. Gross, as previously mentioned in installment #274, was the president of the Chicago Fire Cyclorama Company and managed the attraction that was on display during the world fair. He had also been involved in the Gettysburg Panorama. Reed & Gross Panorama Company created large scale paintings with compositions for the California State Building that included: the harbor of San Francisco and the city, as viewed from Goat Island; Christmas in Pasadena; the Stanford Ranch in northern California; Leland Stanford’s Vineyard; Leland Stanford Jr. University in Palo Alto; New Years at Hotel del Monte in Monterey, Santa Barbara, and Fresno.
What is interesting in the articles and summary that Meier sent mentioned that one of the painted panels was repurposed a few years after the fair. The plan was to install a painting from California Building into another venue. It gives us a glimpse into an ignorant investor’s idea to transfer a large-scale mural into a backdrop for the stage. J. D. Phelan was one of the California World’s Fair Commissioners in 1893. He purchased a painting from the California State Building after the fair that he intended to present as a drop curtain for the Native Sons of the Golden West. Their hall had a stage. This was another fraternity, like the Freemasons, or the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, who incorporated a stage into many of their meeting spaces. N.S.G.W. was founded on July 11, 1875 by Gen. A. M. Winn and others in San Francisco for the payment of sick and death benefits to its members. Limited to Californians, membership was recorded at 9,500 strong in 1899. It is still in existence today.
Native Sons of the Golden West Hall in Pescadero, California.
Native Sons of the Golden West had halls like the Freemasons, Odd Fellows and Grange. As many fraternal spaces, some NSGW Halls had theater stages in their meeting facilities.
I believe that Phelan’s basic intent was to transform a large-scale oil painting into a roll drop for the stage. This is a really bad idea for so many reasons, reasons that I will cover tomorrow. Even if the painting had not been ruined during transport and storage, it was unlikely that this would have been successful in its new locale. It might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but destined to fail as Phelan was unfamiliar with the differences between the two artistic mediums and what was either appropriate or successful for the stage.
To be continued…

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