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Beacon of Progress

CDD.BP
1900

One of Despradelle's earliest impressions of America was the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which he visited shortly before arriving at MIT in 1893. The Chicago fair was a marvel: a showcase of technological progress in a vast campus of Beaux-Arts architecture that dazzled the eye. Most impressive was the electric illumination: the Exposition site on Lake Michigan was the most electrified place on Earth and a demonstration of the utopian promise of an electrified future. Inspired by the spectacle of the Exposition, Despradelle conceived of a monument that would supplant the ephemeral fair and memorialize its achievements, while paying homage to the country that welcomed him as a young immigrant. Called the "Beacon of Progress," his monument took the form of a 1500-foot high obelisk, taller than any existing structure and a fitting tribute, in his words, to the "glory of the American people." It was an over-the-top architectural image as ebullient as the "American spirit of advancement and ingenuity" that he admired and to which he dedicated the monument. From 1893 to 1900, Despradelle produced dozens of drawings elaborating his design, which were widely exhibited. The project evolved to include a complex program of interior spaces with electrification as a rationale. At the apex of the tower was a beacon of light generated by powerful electric arc lamps engineered to be visible for 200 miles. An occupied structure of this height was possible to achieve only with recent advances in construction technology. Despredelle designed a steel and concrete frame to lighten the building loads of his granite-faced shaft, adopting methods developed from the mid-1880s for tall office buildings in American cities. As a designer and teacher he had been swept into these architectural developments that were occurring just as he arrived in America. The final design drawings for the Beacon were exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1900. Sending competition drawings to France gave Despradelle an international platform to demonstrate his assimilation of American architectural innovations and his maturity as a designer, confirmed by a first medal in architecture and nearly universal praise. Uncompromising in its design, the Beacon could never be built, but it remained, as one critic observed, "the most ambitious architectural project ever devised in the brain of man since the Tower of Babel."

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