To the Editor:
In the early 1890s, the Japanese government, striving to break free of cultural bonds that had shut it off from the western world for centuries, heard about the great World’s Columbian Exposition that was under construction in the burgeoning city of Chicago on the shores of Lake Michigan. Eager to be welcomed by the West, the Japanese offered monetary support for the fair, now called the World’s Columbian Exposition, an amount exceeded only by that of the United States.
The Japanese made another offer as well, one that chief of construction Daniel Burnham could not resist. The Japanese wanted to construct a special building, a “Ho-o-den,” or Phoenix Pavilion, and gift it to Chicago following the fair to celebrate the city’s rapid recovery from the Great Fire of 1871 and be a symbol of peace between the U.S. and Japan.
There was one problem. The Japanese wanted to build the Ho-o-den on Wooded Island, the site that chief landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted had specifically designated as a place of respite and quiet reflection, far away from the noise and hubbub of the rest of the fair. Olmsted believed that such green space was necessary for urban living, and the Wooded Island served this important purpose within the fair’s well-planned city environment.
Burnham used his administrative skill to persuade Olmsted to change his mind about the Ho-o-den, which then was built by a cadre of handsomely uniformed Japanese carpenters brought to Chicago specifically for the task of building the Ho-o-den and a nearby Japanese tea house. Following Olmsted’s approval, the South Park Commissioners then agreed to accept the Ho-o-den on behalf of Chicago, and to maintain it as a permanent place to learn about Japan and experience Japanese culture.
The Ho-o-den and teahouse were instantly successful. Both structures not only conveyed the spirits of democracy and community so important to Olmsted’s way of thinking, they left a lasting impression on visitors. Among them was young Frank Lloyd Wright, who developed a life-long fascination and relationship with Japan following his encounters at the fair, including ideas that led to his development of the Prairie style best exemplified by nearby Robie House. Although the teahouse disintegrated shortly after the fair closed, the Ho-o-den remained an important feature of Jackson Park until destroyed by fire in 1946.
We now have the opportunity to reestablish this site, and recognize it as one of the most important sites reflecting U.S.-Japan relations for over 120 years. Yoko Ono recognized this when she first visited the original site of the Ho-o-den in 2013. For her, this site has a unique and extraordinary past and future as symbol of peace. Not just between the U.S. and Japan, but among all people and all nations. In fact, we can all use more peace, not just internationally, but locally on our streets and in our parks. She has given us an opportunity to learn about our past and create the future together. It is our responsibility to use it.
Frances S. Vandervoort
Jackson Park Advisory Council
Washington Park Conservancy
Robert W. Karr, President