“They propose to do the most exquisitely beautiful things…”

Post By: Robert W. Karr, Jr.
Oct 01, 2013

On February 3, 1892, the Japanese Commission, led by Seiichi Tejima (1850-1918), met again with the leadership of the World’s Columbian Exposition to present their revised plans to build a pavilion on the Wooded Island to showcase for the first time in America the greatest achievements of Japan’s artistic heritage.

For the Japanese, the Wooded Island, located at the center of the exposition, was the most idyllic site because it resembled the physical characteristics of Japan. It would not only be the perfect natural setting for a traditional Japanese building, but such a location would elevate Japan’s status by being at the center of the grand iconic buildings representing Western civilization. 

After the meeting, Burnham wired Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), the chief of the exhibition’s landscape design, to request approval to permit the Japanese to build on the Wooded Island. Olmsted had intended that the island would remain unencumbered by buildings in order to provide visitors a quiet sylvan setting to escape the hustle and bustle of the exposition.

On February 5, 1892, Burnham wrote the following letter to Olmsted’s office in Brookline, Massachusetts:
Gentlemen – As wired you last evening the Japanese Commissioners are here. They propose an outdoor exhibit of their temples and, as has been usual, they desire space on the wooded island. Mr. Atwood and I favor this if you will assent. It seems beyond any question to be the thing fitting to the locality and I cannot see that it will in any manner detract essentially from the features which you care for. They propose to the most exquisitely beautiful things and desire to leave the buildings as a gift to the City of Chicago after the close of the Fair. Where we now propose to put them these grounds would be useless in the future and would not produce the effect in the park as finally finished, as where they desire to have them upon the wooded island. I have no doubt they will press for an answer and I wish to say that none of us have spoken favorably about this island to the Japanese themselves and have in no way committed ourselves. Very truly yours, D.H. Burnham, Chief of Construction

Shortly thereafter, the Japanese Commission was granted permission to build on two acres at the northern portion of the fifteen-acre Wooded Island. Since the building was to be a gift to the City of Chicago and remain permanently after the exposition closed, the Japanese Commission was then led by the exposition authorities to negotiate with the South Park Commission (Chicago Park District). Negotiations were concluded on February 19, 1892.


Left – Daniel H. Burnham
Right – Frederick Law Olmsted
Far Right – February 5, 1892 Letter from Burnham to Olmsted

  • “Japan’s Fine Exhibit – S. Tegima talks about plan of his country,” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 1, 1893, p. 9.
  • Letter from Burnham to Olmsted, February 5, 1892, The Daniel Burnham Papers, The Art Institute of Chicago. See also, Thomas S. Hines, Burnham of Chicago: Architect and Planner (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974), 107; and Kevin Nute, Frank Lloyd Wright and Japan (New York: Van ostrand Reinhold, 1993)


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