Diggin’ the White City

Adam Shuboy

The ceiling rumbled over a packed audience as a train ran on the Metra line over Lake Park Avenue. Those who hadn’t ducked in from the bitter January cold early enough to grab a seat were squeezed along the walls of the smart little brick building by the tracks that now serves as the Hyde Park Historical Society’s (HPHS) headquarters. Old and young alike filled the audience, with longstanding Hyde Park community members sitting side-by-side with sixth-graders Marley and Zavier, who were working on their History Fair project for Ogden Elementary.

Four decades ago, the crowd could have come here for a tasty afternoon special at Steve’s Lunch–the last of the lunchroom businesses that occupied the space from 1898 on. Before that, the building served as the ticket counter and waiting room for cable cars servicing the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. While more than a century removed from that peak of Chicago’s cultural legacy, all who gathered last Saturday arrived under the spell of the 1893 Exposition, and the building was transformed once again into a waiting room for the event. University of Chicago doctoral candidate in anthropology Rebecca Graff led a dig in 2008 excavating the backyard bones of the World’s Fair in Jackson Park, and Saturday was her chance to showcase the loot.

The highlights of the dig included the Ho-o-den, the Japanese pavilion built during the Exposition, and the Ohio State Building, which was uncovered in the parking lot outside of the Museum of Science and Industry. Many of her most significant discoveries were small trinkets–jewelry straight out of an old issue of the Sears Roebuck catalog, glass bottle-stoppers, and plaster urns and terra-cotta tiles that matched surviving photos. However, bigger things may still remain hidden. As Rebecca was adamant to point out, “We were only able to cover a small part of all 700 acres of the Fair.”

Throughout the lecture, Graff found herself peppered with questions from the audience, who weren’t too shy to ask about the exact location of excavation sites, the dig process, the artifacts found, or the Fair itself. The only question Graff had difficulty responding to was simply: “Are you coming back to dig in the future?” With local interest as expansive as the fairgrounds still unexcavated, it’s clear what the answer ought to be. (Bonnie Fan)