Midway Plaisance

Midway Plaisance
Jackson Park Historic Landscape District and Midway Plaisance
The Midway Plaisance and University of Chicago.
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Built: 1871
Architect: Frederick Law Olmsted;
Lorado Taft
Architectural style: Other
Governing body: Chicago Park District
NRHP Reference#: 72001565 [1]
Added to NRHP: December 15, 1972

The Midway Plaisance, also known locally as the Midway, is a park on the South Side of the city of Chicago, Illinois. It is one mile long by 220 yards wide and extends along 59th and 60th streets, joining Washington Park at its east end and Jackson Park at its west end. It divides the Hyde Park community area to the north from the Woodlawn community area to the south. It is located approximately 6 miles (9.7 km) south of the downtown "Loop" area, near Lake Michigan.

It served as a center of amusements during the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, lending the name "Midway" to areas at county and state fairs where sideshows are located. The Midway is located within the southern portion of the University of Chicago campus, with university and related buildings fronting it on both sides.

Laid out with long vistas and avenues of trees at the turn of the century, the Midway in part followed the vision of Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the creators of New York City's famous Central Park, but without his impracticable dream of creating a Venetian canal linking the lagoon systems of Jackson and Washington parks. Instead, the Midway is landscaped with a fosse or dry ditch where the canal would have been.

Later designers and artists added (or sought to add) their vision to the Midway. A pet project of the University of Chicago and almost a part of its campus, it has remained essentially a green area.


Origin of the name

A view of the Memorial to Thomas Garrigue Masaryk by Albin Polasek on the Midway.

The word "plaisance" is both the French spelling of and a quaint obsolete spelling for "pleasance", itself an obscure word in this context meaning "a pleasure ground laid out with shady walks, trees and shrubs, statuary, and ornamental water."[citation needed]

The South Park Commission plan

Maps showing the Midway Plaisance (black rectangle) between Washington Park to the west (left) and Jackson Park. (Chicago Park District is in green, University of Chicago in yellow background)

The Midway Plaisance began as a vision in the 1850s of Paul Cornell, a land developer, to turn an undeveloped stretch of infertile land south of Chicago into an urban lakeside retreat for middle and upper class residents seeking to escape the crowds and dirt of the booming city. The area was a lakefront marsh ecosystem.

In 1869, Cornell and his South Park Commission were granted the right to set up a complex of parks and boulevards that would include Washington Park to the west, Jackson Park to the east on the lakeshore, and the Midway Plaisance as a system of paths and waterways connecting the two (see Encyclopedia of Chicago Map). The firm of Olmsted, Vaux, and Co., famous for creating New York City's Central Park, was hired to design the urban oasis. Part of their plan was that the Midway would function as "a magnificent chain of lakes," allowing boaters to go from the ponds to be built in Washington Park to the lagoons to be developed in Jackson Park and through the lagoons to Lake Michigan.

Unfortunately, the South Park Commission office, where all the detailed plans were stored, was burned in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The expense of rebuilding the city eliminated the funds to cover expenditures that the plans would have entailed, and the South Park area remained largely in its natural swampy state.

World's Columbian Exposition

The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 was held in the underdeveloped parts of the South Park. The worldwide celebration of Columbus' transfer of "the torch of civilization to the New World" in 1492 was one of the most successful and influential of world's fairs. It covered over 600 acres (2.4 km²) and attracted exhibitors and visitors from all over the world.

For the Exposition, the mile-long Midway Plaisance, running from the eastern edge of Washington Park on Cottage Grove Avenue to the western edge of Jackson Park on Stony Island Avenue, was turned over to the theatrical entrepreneur Sol Bloom, a protégé of Chicago mayor Carter Harrison, Sr.. It became a grand mix of fakes, hokum, and the genuinely educational and introduced the "hootchy-cootchy" version of the belly dance in the "Street in Cairo" amusement; it was the most popular, with 2.25 million admissions. George Ferris' original Ferris Wheel carried over 1.5 million passengers.[2] The Midway's money-making concessions and sideshows made over $4 million in 1893 dollars, and it was the more memorable portion of the Exposition for many visitors.

In the years after the Exposition closed, midway came to be used commonly in the U.S. to signify the area for amusements at a county or state fair, circus, or amusement park.

University of Chicago

A view of Midway Plaisance today with buildings of the University of Chicago campus in the background

Following the Exposition, the Midway Plaisance was returned to a park setting, under the renewed plans of Frederick Law Olmsted. Over the ensuing decades, the Midway gradually came to be a part of the University of Chicago, which expanded in 1926 to be located on either side of it. Later designers and artists, including Lorado Taft, and Eero Saarinen added or sought to add their vision to the Midway. Statues of the father of modern taxonomy, Carolus Linnaeus, and an equestrian statue of the Knight of Blanik, a legendary Czech savior who emerges from Blanik mountain in his nation's hour of need by famed sculptor Albin Polasek, grace the Midway.

It has remained essentially a green area, a public resource subject to much speculation, and various periodic plans of redevelopment. The sunken panels, home now to soccer players and a new ice skating and sports facility, the cross-street "bridges," and the east-west lines of trees, pay homage to Olmsted's vision.

In 1999, a new master plan for the Midway Plaisance done by OLIN, a landscape architecture firm, was unveiled by the University of Chicago and the Chicago Park District.

The proximity of the Midway to the University gave the school's early football teams, the Maroons, a second nickname, "Monsters of the Midway", a name later applied to the Chicago Bears when the U of C dropped its football program.

See also


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2006-03-15. http://nrhp.focus.nps.gov/natreg/docs/All_Data.html. 
  2. ^ Ferris wheels - an illustrated history, Norman D. Anderson

External links

Coordinates: 41°47′13″N 87°35′46″W / 41.7869°N 87.5962°W / 41.7869; -87.5962

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  • midway — (n.) O.E. mid weg the middle of a way or distance; see MID (Cf. mid) + WAY (Cf. way) (n.). Meaning central avenue of a fairground is first recorded 1893, American English, in reference to the Midway Plaisance of the Worlds Columbian Exposition… …   Etymology dictionary

  • midway — [mid′wā΄; ] also, for adj. & adv. [, mid′wā′] n. [ME midwei < OE midweg] 1. Obs. a) the middle of the way or distance b) a middle way or course ☆ 2. [orig. short for Midway Plaisance, the amusement area of the Columbian Exposition (1893), in… …   English World dictionary

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  • midway — adv., adj. /mid way /; n. /mid way /, adv., adj. 1. in the middle of the way or distance; halfway. n. 2. a place or part situated midway. 3. (often cap.) the place or way, as at a fair or carnival, on or along which sideshows and similar… …   Universalium

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  • midway — mid•way adv., adj. [[t]ˈmɪdˈweɪ[/t]] n. [[t] ˌweɪ[/t]] adv. adj. 1) in the middle of the way or distance; halfway 2) (often cap.) a place or way, as at a fair or carnival, on or along which sideshows, games, concessions, etc. are located 3) a… …   From formal English to slang

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  • Monsters of the Midway — The Monsters of the Midway is most widely known as the nickname for the National Football League s Chicago Bears particularly the dominant teams of 1940 and 1941.[1] The name underwent something of a renewal when the 1985 edition of the Bears… …   Wikipedia

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