The White City


Chicago “embraces in its unimaginable amplitude every extreme of splendor and squalor,” wrote the Scottish journalist William Archer. ”. . . More than any other city of my acquaintance, [it] suggests that antique conception of the underworld which places Elysium and Tartarus not only on the same plane, but, so to speak, round the corner from each other.” Dreiser thought it “spoke of a tremendous future"; Kipling questioned whether “the snarling together of telegraph wires, the heaving up of houses, and the making of money is progress.” But no matter how observers differed in their reaction to its messy vitality, few would have disputed Henry Adams’s conviction that Chicago was the best place to observe the “new energies” of the age.

Chicago’s phenomenal post-fire growth forced its civic-conscious leaders to confront the questions Europeans had been wrestling with since the equally sudden emergence of Manchester earlier in the century: Were the new industrial giants like this subject to human control? Could they be made fit places to live in as well as to make money in?


Chaotic Chicago was a spectacle of raw, ungoverned economic energy. “It is the most perfect presentation of nineteenth-century individualist industrialism I have ever seen,” H. G. Wells remarked. “Chicago”—he echoed Burnham—“is one hoarse cry for discipline.”

The reporter Edward Mason found among Chicagoans he talked to in 1893 an almost universal belief in automatic urban ascent, what Wells called America’s “optimistic fatalism”—a disposition “to assume that the near future will right itself whatever may be wrong, and to leave the present to care for itself.” Yet it was not that Chicagoans opposed planning. The city had a reputation for carrying through public-works programs of heroic scale, including reversing the flow of the Chicago River and raising the city out of the mud and mire it was built on, elevating rows of buildings as much as ten feet, to the new city grade. Chicagoans, however, practiced a particular kind of planning—planning inspired and influenced by businessmen with the aim either of promoting commercial growth or of dealing with citywide problems that had become too dangerous to ignore. The raising of the downtown and the reversal of the river had been undertaken after a succession of deadly cholera epidemics had swept through the badly drained city, whose filthy river flowed into its Lake Michigan water supply; and Pullman’s town, with its scrupulously recruited and monitored work force, had been built after the railroad riots of 1877 to ensure labor peace and uninterrupted company growth. “Scarcely anything is done publicly in Chicago entirely free from the current of business interests,” wrote Frederick Law Olmsted, who was hired just before the fire to submit a plan for Jackson Park, on the lakefront eight miles south of the downtown.

In 1890 Olmsted returned to Chicago with his young assistant, Henry Sergent Codman, to prepare a landscape plan for the Columbian Exposition on that same unfinished park site, a wild, water-soaked flat, bare except for a scattering of oak trees stripped of their foliage by gales that swept in from Lake Michigan. The handsome summer city he and Daniel Burnham built there in a mere two years was the most ambitious privately planned endeavor in Chicago up to that time. It wasn’t built, primarily, to make money, but it was designed, like Pullman’s town, as an antidote to social disorder.

The fair took place at a critical juncture in the nation’s history. Many Americans saw their country’s future bound up with the future of its industrial cities, and these cities appeared to be flying apart even as they were being built ever larger.

The city is the “storm center” of civilization, wrote Josiah Strong in his sensationalist polemic Our Country . “Here is heaped the social dynamite; here roughs, gamblers, thieves, robbers, lawless and desperate men of all sorts, congregate; men who are ready on any pretext to raise riots for the purpose of destruction and plunder.” Strong spoke for growing numbers of his compatriots who feared that the unsettling changes urban growth had brought with it—socialism and labor unrest, spreading slums, waves of desperately poor Catholic and Jewish immigrants, and a new and freer morality—would tear apart the old Prostestant Republic.

As many as ten thousand people a day paid an admission charge just to see the construction site.

But this was also a decade of confidence and exuberant expansionism, and Burnham’s celestial city—clean, orderly, safe, and spacious—was a reassuring expression of faith in the nation’s future, a prophecy to millions who saw it of a new “Olympian Age,” when all the large cities of the country would be made over in its image. It was an expression, as well, of the Chicago elite’s conviction that industrial cities could be saved not by socialist planners or settlement-house reformers but by the civic-spirited leaders who had built them. It was planning in the grand Chicago manner and, like Chicago itself, it was one of the spectacular construction efforts of the century.