Carved Wooden Panels from 1893 Columbian Exposition back together again! (Article 2 in a series)

Carved Wooden Panels from 1893 Columbian Exposition back together again! (Article 2 in a series)
Pheonix Transom Panels at the Art Institute

Series:  Remnants of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago

See Article 1 in the series here : The Columbus Statue and The Cold Storage Building Fire, July 10, 1893


The Ho-o-den Pheonix Palace and gardens were dedicated on March 31, 1893 at 12 noon roughly one month before the gates of Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition were opened to the public.    The Palace and associated gardens occupied the north end of the wooded island in the north pond of Jackson Park.   Several hundred guests were in attendance at the dedication ceremony including the Exposition Board of Directors, the department chiefs and their secretaries, the foreign commissioners and their secretaries, the Japanese Consuls, Seventy Japanese residents of Chicago, the officers of the Columbian Guard, William F. French of the Art Institute, Mayor Harrison and Marshall Field to name a few.  Guards roamed the entrances to the grounds from every approach to insure that only invited guest s were present.  The Japanese commissioner S. Tegima received the key to the palace from architect M. Kuru and began the ceremonies.  Next to speak was Director-General Davis, then president Potter Palmer, Chief Burnham, and President of the South Park Commissioners, Joseph Donnersberger.


Famed Landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted designed the island to be a place of solitude and serenity and Chief Daniel Burnham complimented the Japanese officials for a job well done.


Following the end of the fair the Japanese gifted the Palace and gardens to the American people and the city continued to use the location as a tea house and gardens.   The Nippon Tea House  and garden were also moved to the island after the 1933 World’s Fair.  As the economic decline of the 1930s crept in, the health of the Ho-o-den Palace and its gardens declined as well.  In 1945 a suspicious fire burned down the palace and by the 1960s the shrubbery had been cut down and the flowers trampled.


In early 1979, the city of Chicago received a $200,000 Federal Grant that was to help pay for a re-vitalization of the Japanese Garden area of the wooded island.  The other $200,000 consisted of a matching grant from the city of Chicago.  The official name of the project was the Paul H. Douglas Nature Sanctuary.    The finished product is what exists there today although it was renamed the “Osaka Garden” by Mayor Richard M. Daley back in 1993 to  commemorate the 20th Anniversary of Chicago’s sister city relationship with Osaka, Japan.


In an odd coincidence, in 1973 (the same year as the start of Chicago’s sister city relationship with Osaka, Japan and eighty years after the close of the Exposition) four scorched, soot-covered panels were discovered under the bleachers at Soldier Field.  These panels were the intricately carved and painted “Ramma” panels that adorned the ceiling of the Jodan-no-ma Central Hall of the original Ho-o-den Palace.  The panels were a centerpiece of the Ho-o-den and each was 9 feet long , made of two separate panels of wood and colorfully depicted the mythical Pheonix birds flying amidst a flowery garden.   Two panels were donated to the University of Illinois at Chicago and two to the Art Institute.  The University was unable to pay for the restoration of the panels and in 2010 gifted their two panels to the Art Institute.  The Art Institute had all four panels go through a 10 month restoration process at the Litas Liparini Studio in Evanston that included cleaning, in-painting, repair and recreation of missing parts of the panels.


The Ramma panels are now on permanent display together for the first time since 1945 in gallery 108 of the Weston Wing of Japanese Art in a building that is itself a veteran of the Columbian Exposition.

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