The White City


The venerable black leader Frederick Douglass found something more seriously objectionable about the fair’s exhibits: their total exclusion of the accomplishments of African-Americans. The only blacks in a prominent place on the exposition grounds were a village of Dahomeyans on display on the Midway. The exposition’s managers evidently wanted black Americans to be represented by the “barbarious rites [of] African savages brought to act the monkey,” Douglass charged, and helped his young friend Ida B. Wells write and distribute to foreign visitors an impassioned broadside, “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition.” But when Wells boycotted Colored People’s Day, claiming it was being staged to ridicule Negroes (a claim given force when twenty-five hundred watermelons were provided for the crowd), Douglass stayed on the grounds and used the occasion to decry the American government’s failure to protect blacks from discrimination and lynchings.

Douglass called the fair a “whited sepulcher,” and that analogy carried over into areas other than its mistreatment of black people. In a fair that purported to present an urban Utopia, there were no exhibits on model worker’s housing or even on the actual operations of Chicago’s Hull House, the country’s leading laboratory for urban ideas. In the White City, urban problems appeared only in the form of their proposed solutions, and the solutions were only for problems that could be “solved” by architecture and the industrial arts.


Built at a time of rising prosperity, the fair saw its final act take place in an atmosphere of economic crisis and labor upheaval. In the fall of 1893, as the nationwide depression that had begun earlier that year deepened, tens of thousands of men poured into Chicago on freight trains and joined its growing number of unemployed laborers in demonstrations for bread and jobs outside the exposition grounds. The five-term mayor Carter Harrison tried to blunt the impact of the worsening depression with publicworks spending. The greatest Chicago public-works project was the fair itself, and Harrison petitioned Congress to keep it open into November and to reopen it in the following spring for another season. Speaking on “All Cities Day,” the second-to-last day of the fair, he said it almost sickened him “to think that it will be torn down in a few days.”

It was Harrison’s last public appearance. Later that day he was shot and killed in the foyer of his home by a disgruntled office seeker. In respect for his memory, . the pageantry scheduled for the fair’s final day was canceled. At sunset on October 30 a cannon salute and the lowering of a weather-worn American flag signaled the official closing of the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Visiting the grounds the following January, a Chicago reporter found the buildings disfigured by coal dust, with great patches of plaster peeling from their facades. Groups of desperate unemployed men had taken refuge in the Court of Honor, now a gray and grimy city of the homeless. The following July, at the end of a day of violence between striking Pullman railroad workers and federal troops commanded by General Miles, the former grand marshal of the fair, a fire of unknown origin swept through the Court of Honor, and more than a hundred thousand people gathered on the grounds to watch a three-hour “spectacle that... exceeded anything of the kind that had occurred since the Great Fire of 1871.” The orderly crowd looked on in silence as if it was watching a fireworks display of the previous summer. “There was no regret; rather a feeling of pleasure that the elements and not the wrecker should wipe out the spectacle of the Columbian season,” the Tribune reported.

The fair’s richest legacy is its builders’ faith in the possibilities of urban life, that a city could be made of art.

Like the Great Fire, the burning of the White City was seen by many Chicagoans as an opportunity for a fresh start. That summer Daniel Burnham began conceiving plans for a series of civic improvements that would transform Jackson Park and the entire municipal lakeshore into a vast pleasure ground, the landscape centerpiece of his Chicago Plan of 1909, the greatest civic project to come out of the fair. Chicago owes its peerless lakefront and the boulevard character of Michigan Avenue to Burnham’s plan, but that plan—like the City Beautiful improvements he fashioned for Cleveland, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.—made no provision for the needs of ethnic and black neighborhoods, the worlds of Jane Addams’s Italian immigrants, Mr. Dooley’s saloon-house cronies, or Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas, who utters the epitaph of Burnham’s White City vision: “Goddamit, look! We live here and they live there.... They got things and we ain’t.”