The Great White City

When the plans for the World’s Columbian Exposition were spread before him, banker Lyman J. Gage greeted them with disbelief. “Oh, gentlemen,” he said, “this is a dream. Yon have my good wishes. I hope the dream can be realized.” The occasion—one the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens called “the greatest meeting of artists since the fifteenth century”was a day-long session in the architectural offices of Daniel Burnham early in 1891. Though the idea of a fair to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ lauding had been stirring in the minds of Chicagoans for a number of years, it had not taken practical form until 1889. New York, Washington, and St. Louis mused similar ambitions, but Chicago’s bid of ten million dollars (later doubled from other sources) had settled the matter. With Burnham’s famous slogan—“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood”—with Burnham himself as chief of construction, and with Frederick Law Olmsted (and his partner Charles S. Codman of Boston) engaged to lay out the grounds, a tract ol Chicagos swamp and sand was to become—as it was first and best known—a “Great White City.”

The Fair was projected on an enormous scale. Where London’s Crystal Palace had covered over twenty acres, and Philadelphia’s Centennial over two hundred, Chicago dwarfed them with over six hundred. Its vistas of ivory colonnades against the blue of sky and lake stretched the imaginations of Americans unused to such magnificence. “It’s too much for my mind,” said one visitor. “It fills you up with more ideas than you’ve got room for.” Undoubtedly the uniform whiteness added to an effect of unreality and other-worldliness in this period when streets of alabaster and gates of pearl were familiar hymn-book images.

In any event, the words “vision,” “dream,” and “enchantment” are frequently used in contemporary descriptions. Even James Truslow Adams refers to the Fair as “a vision of beauty which has rarely been equalled … compared with it the Paris Exposition of 1900 was an inchoate jumble of incongruous monstrosities,” and almost forty years afterward Lloyd Lewis could write that it “still forces the belief that … it was the most wonderful thing of its time. It became the ruling passion of statesmen as well as architects, of religionists as well as artisans, of merchants, painters, engineers, musicians, soldiers, orators, and dukes.... Destiny brought to this young city an explosion of idealism, produced a miracle and then ordered the miracle to disappear....”

There is certainly evidence that to the public—the many millions who rambled through its miles of parks and gardens, drifted along its lagoons, or from the top of the Ferris Wheel watched the lighted prisms of the great fountain in the Court of Honor—the Chicago Fair was overwhelming, an impression that is only confirmed by Henry James’s sarcastic reference: “They say one should sell all one has and mortgage one’s soul to go there, it is esteemed stich a revelation of beauty. People burst into tears, cast away all sin and baseness, and grow religious under its influence.”

What produced this outpouring of civic energy? Why, above all, did it occur in Chicago, that “reeking, cinder-ridden joyous Baptist stronghold,” that pandemonium of pork and profits? In 1843 Margaret Fuller had called the city the “desolation of dullness,” and easterners considered its interests confined to “cash, cussing, and cuspidors.” But Richard Cobden had advised Englishmen to see two things in America, “Chicago and the Falls of the Niagara,” and as early as 1820 Lewis Cass had foreseen that “to the ordinary advantages of an agricultural market town Chicago must hereafter add those of a depot for inland commerce … and a great thoroughfare for strangers, merchants, and travellers.” The dosing decade of the nineteenth century marks the end of an era in the city’s growth. By the elegant eighties Chicago had acquired the leisure to pause—after her successive crises of pioneering, massacre, civil war, and ruinous fireto catch her breath and appraise her status.

Her population had topped 100,000 by 1860 and this was doubled in the next twenty years by immigration. By 1889 the country’s population center had moved from Maryland to Indiana, the Mississippi had been bridged, over 160,000 miles of railroad were operating, and the Midwest was producing an annual billion dollars’ worth of wheat, corn, and oats. By 1891 Chicago, with over a million citizens, was a major rail center, boasting 850 trains daily, three universities, 465 churches, a symphony orchestra, twenty-four theaters, fourteen hundred hotels, several hundred weekly, monthly, and quarterly magazines, and two dozen daily papers. Hydraulic elevators served the city’s “sky-scrapers,” and fireproof buildings of granite and “Lemont Marble” (a lighter limestone preferred to the local yellow) lined her busy gas-lit streets, where formidable fortunes were no longer a novelty.