On January 3, 1882, British author and critic Oscar Wilde arrived in New York to begin an ambitious yearlong lecture tour across North America. “I am here to lecture and see your country,” he told assembled reporters, ending with the vow: “I have come here to get acquainted with the big-hearted American people, and I shan't return to Europe until I do.” His experiences included two stops to lecture in Chicago.
Oscar Wilde's first Chicago lecture was anticipated with great interest and curiosity, fueled by the extensive press coverage of his previous lectures in other cities as well as detailed accounts of his personal activities, appearance and manner of dress. To accommodate the expected crowds in Chicago, Wilde was booked to appear in the Central Music Hall, a 2,000-seat auditorium at State and Randolph streets. On Feb. 13, 1882, the hall was filled to standing-room capacity.
The audience listened politely and attentively as Wilde advocated truth and honesty in art and architecture. To make his point relevant to the Chicago audience, Wilde questioned why the city's Water Tower was clad with Gothic-styled stonework of another time and place, instead of expressing the simple dignity of the iron standpipe within. To the amusement of the crowd, Wilde dismissed the much-loved survivor of Chicago's Great Fire of 1871 as a “castellated monstrosity with pepperboxes stuck all over it.”
Although Wilde's mention of the Water Tower was only a small and relatively minor part of his overall lecture theme, the comment gained considerable attention in the local newspapers. When a reporter asked the following day about wounding the pride of the local citizenry with his remarks, Wilde was decidedly unrepentant: “I can't help that. It's really too absurd. If you build a water tower, why don't you build it for water and make a simple structure of it, instead of building it like a castle, where one expects to see mailed knights peering out of every part. It seems like a shame to me that the citizens of Chicago have spent so much money on buildings with such an unsatisfactory result from an architectural point of view. Your city looks positively too dreary to me.”
Wilde returned to Chicago March 12 to deliver a lecture on the subject of interior and exterior house decoration, but the presentation did not achieve the same degree of success and notoriety as his earlier appearance.
From Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community, edited by Tracy Baim, Surrey Books, 2008.