The White City

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“The world’s greatest achievement of the departing century was pulled off in Chicago,” said George Ade, one of the city’s first important writers. “The Columbian Exposition was the most stupendous, interesting and significant show ever spread out for the public.” The fair drew an estimated twenty-seven million people, making it the greatest tourist attraction in American history. And it was a cultural phenomenon of profound importance. Richard Harding Davis, the leading correspondent of the day, called it “the greatest event in the history of the country since the Civil War.” The exposition that was to celebrate—one year late—the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World marked America’s emergence from the carnage and bitterness of the war as a reunified nation of unrivaled power and wealth. The imperial architecture of the exposition’s pavilions, the full-scale replica of the battleship Illinois at the fair’s Naval Pier, and the astonishing exhibits of American advances in science, technology, and the world-transforming arts of mass production and merchandising announced that the approaching century would be indisputably ours.

But if this was America’s fair, it was even more so Chicago’s. “History will call it the Chicago World’s Fair,” a reporter predicted even before the exposition opened. “It is useless to expect otherwise.” At no other world’s fair, then or after, was there a closer identification between the host city and the show it put on. Almost on its own, Chicago financed and built the fair, and it remains, for many Chicagoans, the greatest event in their city’s history. It was Chicago’s “fete day,” wrote the novelist Robert Herrick in his memoirs of the 1890s, “when it proclaimed to everybody that in spite of... [its] haste and ugliness and makeshift character ... it had preserved its love of the ideal, of beauty and could accomplish it too—could achieve anything!”

 

Herrick was recalling, of course, the stately White City that Daniel Hudson Burnham constructed on the shores of Lake Michigan, a vision of the “City Beautiful” that would shape American architecture and planning far into the next century. Seen by observers then and historians later as the antithesis of the monster industrial metropolis that spread out all around it, Burnham’s festival city “in a way was Chicago,” said Herrick, “its dream, its ideal, its noblest self incarnated in magnificent buildings, in splendor of size and beauty.” It was an emphatic declaration that Chicago had arrived as a city of global consequence, a center of culture and architecture as well as moneymaking. To Chicagoans it seemed fitting that their city celebrate its amazing recovery from the Great Fire of 1871, a two-day holocaust that consumed the entire central core of the city, by building an instant city that was both a symbol of what it had accomplished and a dream of what it hoped to become—first in wealth and first in beauty, in the confident estimate of the young Theodore Dreiser, “first of all American if not all European or world cities.”

 
Every great city has a moment when it becomes aware of its place in history. For Chicago, that moment was 1893.

There is in the life of any great city a moment when it becomes fully conscious of its place in history. For Chicago that moment was 1893. In that year the world’s first skyscraper city had a population of more than one million people, and among them was an early settler who remembered it as a desolate trading post of some thirty souls living between a swamp and a sand-choked river. Without ever leaving Chicago, this old man had moved, by 1893, from the country to the city, from an agrarian to an industrial America, and had lived, in the process, through the entire history of his still-growing city.

The nineteenth century was America’s “age of cities.” Between 1789, when Gen. George Washington set out from Mount Vernon for New York City to be sworn in as the nation’s first President, and 1889, when Jane Addams set out from Rockford, Illinois, to open a settlement house in a Chicago slum, the country’s urban population had increased more than one hundred times, while the total population had multiplied only sixteen times. And of all the cities of the country—of the world, in fact—none had grown faster or was more representative of the century than “astonishing Chicago,” as Mark Twain called it. “There is in history no parallel to [Chicago’s growth],” wrote Charles Dudley Warner, “not St. Petersburg rising out of the marshes at an imperial edict, nor Berlin, the magic creation of a consolidated empire and a Caesar’s power.”