The White City

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Chicago had forced itself forward as the logical site of a world’s fair that was to celebrate America’s industrial and urban expansion. City of the Century, “child of the age of steam, electricity and world-wide exchange,” it was “the first of the great cities of the world,” as one of its writers noted, “to rise under purely modern conditions.” Chicago had won the right to hold the fair in a heated competition with New York that was decided by Congress, its bluster and bragging gaining it the now-misapplied nickname the Windy City. And in this battle of cities its most insistent claim was it must have the fair because it was the “most typically American” of the country’s large cities. This raw, unfinished colossus, with its surging energy, money-getting spirit, and absence of settled tradition, was, many writers of the time agreed, the “concentrated essence” of America. “Here of all her cities,” wrote Frank Norris, “throbbed the true life—the true power and spirit of America.”

For Norris, the essence of that power and spirit was the drive for profit and economic empire. “It is the only great city in the world,” wrote Chicago-born Henry Fuller, “to which all its citizens have come for the one common, avowed object of making money. There you have its growth, its end and object.” In an unreservedly commercial country, it was the “purest kind of commercial city,” a French writer remarked on his arrival there in 1893, the stupendous product of the country’s buccaneering business spirit.

But if Chicago got the fair because of what it was, it used the occasion of the fair to try to remake its image and appearance, undertaking a building and beautification effort without precedent in the experience of American cities. The business powers that had rebuilt Chicago after the fire—led by the local triumvirate of Marshall Field, George Pullman, and Philip Armour—were responsible for bringing the fair to the city, and they wanted to dispel the notion, trumpeted in the New York press, that their city was merely a center of “pig-sticking and grain-handling” and that for the Columbian anniversary it would embarrass the entire nation by putting on a “cattle show on the shores of Lake Michigan.”

Like the Medici of Renaissance Florence, civic patrons and merchant princes they sometimes compared themselves to, these parvenus saw support of the arts, and of architecture especially, as a way of enhancing their own fame and making Chicago a world capital the like of London, Paris, and Vienna. In this city, which struck a foreign visitor as a “strange combination of pork and Plato,” there was a close connection between artists and entrepreneurs, an alliance that had telling consequences for the Columbian Exposition. Local writers and artists dined at the tables of self-created meat-packers and railroad kings, while Daniel Burnham and his partner, John Wellborn Root, married into prominent mercantile families and converted many of their clients to their faith in the ability of architecture to restore a sense of beauty and repose to modern urban life. It was time, said Burnham, “to bring order out of the chaos incident to rapid growth.”

In preparing for the fair, Chicago built several superb libraries, a world-class university—the University of Chicago, which completed its first academic year the month the fair opened—a new Art Institute on Parisian-like Michigan Avenue, and, just across the street, a magnificent center for the performing arts, Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler’s Auditorium Building. City leaders also assembled a superb symphony orchestra under the direction of Theodore Thomas and expanded Chicago’s extensive system of parks and connecting carriage runs.

The White City was the zenith of this civic awakening, and its full significance cannot be appreciated without grasping this connection. Built by Chicago’s elite, the White City was their vision of what a great city could be like at a time when the country’s large cities were almost universally thought to be ugly, disorderly, dangerous, and ungovernable. Passing from the “cluttered ugliness of the city itself” to the orderly magnificence of the White City, many fairgoers believed—or at least hoped—they were seeing the American metropolis of tomorrow. As it turned out, however, the far-flung, discordant city they left behind for a day of enthrallment turned out to be the clearer presentiment of the future.

“Mirror of the age,” “America’s city,” Chicago was also a city ahead of its time, a place people visited to try to comprehend the forces that would shape the urban future. Chicago’s vast slaughtering houses and mail-order firms were the incarnation of machine-age speed and efficiency, and its downtown was the world’s first truly modern metropolitan core—lit by electricity, serviced by a state-of-the-art transportation system, and with office towers placed one next to the other in solid blocks, an entirely new way of organizing city streets. These skyscrapers were symbols not only of a new Chicago but of a new type of world city geared to far-flung trading, finance, and the exchange of information. “This American city, with all its problems and promise, is the future,” a European visitor remarked in 1893.