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Setting the Stage of Modernity

Freiman's Department Store and the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress World Fair

Anna Stevenson, Author

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Architectural Connotations of Modernity

"To signal the imminent return to prosperity, modernization required an architectural imagery
that might serve as countershock, expression of progress and optimism, and
boldly advertising an ever-brightening future. Modernism required the architectural
imagery of modernism" (Esperdy 2008, 206).

                The importance of architecture in signaling modernity was understood and executed by Freiman’s through their
architectural model of the 1933 Century of Progress Fair. Due to the economic
climate Freiman’s was unable to renovate their store so the use of the model
was an innovation to represent their vision. Similar to the Century of
Progress’ architecture, design innovations had to be made to accommodate to the
times. Freiman’s however still kept the same standards for quality as the model
was built by local “skilled” artisans with faithful representation of the Fair
and great time and patience (Ottawa Citizen September 27 1933, 10). The use of
local artisans is similar to the Fair’s use of local famous architects which
enhances the perceived significance of the store and the event. Later in 1944,
when Freiman’s had recovered from the Depression, they commissioned the world
renowned Raymond Lowey and Associates of New York to design the first floor of the store which again shows their
desire to be on the forefront of modernity (Freiman 1978, 81). The placement of the model in the
store’s large corner display window is also significant as it speaks to the fair’s
theme of process over product. The importance of the display window as a site
for competing for consumer attention was not a new realization for A.J. Freiman.
Since 1921 it was the site for the annual “Freiman Birthday Sale” contests during
the month of October (Freiman 1978, 65). Customers had to count an element in
the window’s display, such as the number of coins in an “artistic” coin built
city (1921) or the number of pearls in “Fairyland” (1931), and they could enter
their guess when they bought an item in the store (Freiman 1978, 65). With the
Century of Progress model in 1933 one had to count the number of figures on the
fairgrounds. Consumers were able to be a part of a process and the Century of
Progress’s “process over product” model and John Sewell’s connection between
dramatic process and memory of the product are portrayed through Freiman’s
contest. Controlled fantasy was another shared theme as consumers were able to
participate in fantasies (of “winning the draw”) yet these fantasies were
within controlled contexts of rules and were predicated on consumption. Thus
consumers were introduced to the idea of capitalism as agency, and specifically
corporate capitalism as modernizing agency associated with progress and hope. The
model’s modern architectural forms were meant to also educate and enlighten the
public as to the current spectacular modern event that was taking place below
the border. Many people in smaller towns such as Ottawa lacked the funds to
travel to Chicago to see the World Fair so Freiman’s brought the fair, and its
visual connotations of brighter future, to Ottawa. They positioned themselves
as the exporters of current international happenings and events, thus again
asserting their high cultural and social status yet doing so in a democratic
way of spreading knowledge and experience through an “educational” model and
contest; a fantasy one could all participate in. Freiman’s marketed the
architectural model as an event to participate in: “If you have been to Chicago
you’ll better appreciate how faithful this reproduction really is; if you have
not, it will give you a panoramic view of the chief points of interest insofar
as it is possible to reproduce in limited space” and another advertisement
emphasized how, “this is the most educational birthday contest they have ever
planned, and one should see this window because it’s worth a trip to see”
(Ottawa Citizen, September 1933). The miniature quality of the fair is also
used strategically to help foster the proper “ambience” for the stimulation of
desire and transcendence of the consumer from lived reality. The miniature creates
an “other” time, a type of transcendent time, which negates change and the
instability of lived reality (Stewart 1984, 46). The modern populated Century
of Progress model seems frozen in space, unaffected by external reality, and
thus connecting modern with the notion of the ideal. The glass of the window
maximizes the consumer’s transcendent vision by protecting the miniature city
from contamination – keeping it pure and untainted (Stewart 1984, 68). The
architectural imagery of the Century of Progress model was therefore used to
build the visual connotation of modernity and solidify Freiman’s place as the
centre of modernity for Ottawa.

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