The White City


In the fall of 1890 Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root were named supervising architects of the Columbian Exposition, and they collaborated with Olmsted and Codman to sketch in pencil and on brown paper a “festive” city of interlinked canals, basins, and lagoons, with all the major exposition halls touching water, and with an architecture court surrounding a reflecting basin decorated with fountains and statuary. Burnham, as chief of construction, then chose the architects for the Court of Honor, passing over, with one exception—Solon S. Beman, designer of the town of Pullman—his own city’s history-making architects for a team dominated by Easterners who worked principally in neoclassical styles, undoubtedly because this was an architecture that embodied the values of order, permanence, and tradition he found lacking in Chicago.

When the out-of-town architects met in Chicago for the first time, Burnham and Olmsted took them for their initial look at Jackson Park. It was a raw, overcast day, and as the Easterners walked the desolate site, shaking their heads in dismay, one of them climbed on a pier and shouted to Burnham, “Do you mean to say that you really expect to open a fair here by "93?” To which Burnham shot back, “The point is settled!” That Saturday night, at a dinner for the architects, Burnham gave a speech calling for the same spirit of “team-work” and “self-sacrifice” that had won the Civil War, and “the men left the banquet hall and united like soldiers in a campaign.”

The following Monday, when the architects met in Burnham and Root’s office library, a call came in from Root’s wife: Her husband had pneumonia. Burnham excused himself and rushed to his partner’s bedside, where he remained until Root died three days later. Root, who had just turned forty-one, was perhaps the most original architect in America. Henry Codman, the other rising young genius on the design team, died almost exactly two years later as he was supervising the completion of the fair’s landscape work. He was twenty-nine.

Construction of the World’s Columbian Exposition began in the early winter of 1891 with the job of dredging and filling, an operation that required moving millions of tons of earth. Giant steam dredges cut their way inland from the lake, making channels through which they could float. By summer the network of waterways had been completed, and with incredible speed a new city rose out of the swamp and sand, a phenomenon Chicago newspapers compared with the lightning emergence of their own town from mudhole to metropolis.

When the buildings began to go up, visitors—as many as ten thousand a day—paid an admission charge to see the largest construction site in modern memory. On any given week there were as many as twelve thousand workers on the grounds. Railroad tracks crisscrossed the 685-acre site, and freight engines hauled in more than thirty-six thousand carloads of materials for the more than two hundred structures that had to be built. The exhibition halls were framed with wood or iron, then covered with a combination of plaster of Paris and hemp fiber, called staff, and spray-painted white, giving them the effect of “solidity and magnificence.” But however impressive they might have looked from the outside, they were merely decorated sheds with their interior framing exposed.

Directing the entire operation was the forty-four-year-old Burnham, “one of those magnificent egoists who rule the world,” according to his sister-in-law, the poet Harriet Monroe. His men called him Commander-in-Chief, and he built a shack—a “command post”—on the grounds and lived there for part of every week, supervising his “army” of workers, most of whom lived in barracks on the construction site. On Sunday evenings Burnham brought in Theodore Thomas to conduct recitals in the library of his official headquarters, and he had Charles Dudley Arnold, the fair’s official photographer, show lantern slides of the buildings-in-progress to the workers in their quarters. Burnham’s chief lieu tenants dined together and slept on cots, and every morning at dawn —reveille—a big wagon appeared at their dormitory door and everyone made a tour of the grounds with the chief of construction. To provide security and keep out labor agitators, Burnham built an eight-foot fence around the grounds and posted sentries at the gates. He saw his commission as a supreme civic duty and instilled that spirit in his workers.