The White City


Although the buildings were not nearly ready, they were officially dedicated on October 21, 1892, four hundred years to the day, by the revised calender, following Columbus’s sighting of the West Indies. The next morning the city woke to the sound of artillery, and at exactly nine o’clock Gen. Nelson A. Miles wheeled his horse in the street in front of the Auditorium Building, the United States 5th Cavalry behind him, and led a parade of dignitaries, including Vice President Levi Morton (President Benjamin Harrison was at his dying wife’s bedside), to Jackson Park. More than one hundred thousand people crowded into George Post’s mammoth Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, to hear the dedication and listen to a five-thousand-member chorus, a five-hundred-piece orchestra, and the usual barrage of holiday oratory. The only noteworthy speech was given by Bertha Honoré Palmer, wife of the wealthy Chicago hotelier Potter Palmer and the unchallenged leader of Chicago society. An ardent feminist, she was president of the exposition’s Board of Lady Managers, which had its headquarters in the only building designed by a woman, the twenty-one-year-old Sophia G. Hayden of Boston. Bertha Palmer’s mere presence on the podium was considered an unprecedented recognition of women, but she thought it perfectly fitting, she said, considering that it was a woman, Queen Isabella, who was largely responsible for Columbus’s voyage.

That following winter, one of the severest in Chicago’s history, Burnham drove his army furiously to get the fair ready for its May opening while immense roofs caved in under heavy snows and high winds blew away smaller buildings. On the eve of the opening, F. Herbert Stead, a British journalist, arrived in Chicago to cover the event. It had been raining for a week, and as he made his way around the partially flooded site, everything seemed to be in a state of “gross incompleteness.” But when he returned to Jackson Park the next morning, the litter-strewn construction site had been cleaned up overnight and hundreds of unloaded railroad cars drawn back into temporary sheds. The storm spent itself shortly after dawn, and when President Grover Cleveland arrived in a carriage just before noon, he was greeted by the cheers of “a monster mob of 200,000 persons sway[ing] back and forth before the [speaker’s] stand at the Administration Building.” The President gave a blessedly short address and then pressed a gilded “electric button,” setting in motion the machinery that powered the exhibition. In one instant the shroud fell from Daniel Chester French’s statue of the Republic in the Great Basin, fountains sprayed water a hundred feet into the air, flags unfurled from a thousand standards, warships in the harbor fired salutes, and hundreds of lake craft sounded their whistles. Buffalo Bill, in town for the summer with his Wild West Show , waved his white sombrero from his prominent position in the front of the crowd, while Jane Addams, caught somewhere in the crush, felt a man snatch her purse.

Most fairgoers went out to Jackson Park by cable car, by Charles Yerkes’s new electrified “El” train, or in one of the Illinois Central’s open-air “cattle cars.” But all the guidebooks agreed that the most delightful way to go was by lake steamer. The World’s Fair Steamship Company ran a fleet of twenty-five steamers from its midtown dock.

The boats landed at a pier reaching half a mile into the lake, where most passengers lingered for a while to take in the grounds. A movable sidewalk ran from one end of the pier to the other, carrying more than five thousand people at a time (when it was working) to the sculpture-decked Peristyle that formed the “front door” to the Court of Honor. As the fairgoer passed through the Peristyle’s Water-Gate “the whole beauty of the Exposition broke in on the newcomer.” Straight ahead on the horizon rose the golden-ribbed dome of Richard Morris Hunt’s Administration Building, and around the basin was a continuous composition of architecture, sculpture, water, and esplanade. Pennants and flags snapped in the breeze from the towers of the buildings, and in the reflecting basin were the two main sculpture pieces of the exposition, French’s Republic , and Frederick MacMonnies’s Columbian Fountain . A canal led off from the basin to Olmsted’s terraced lagoons, and from the bridge that crossed it, visitors could see the other exhibition halls, all of them white except for Louis Sullivan’s multicolored Transportation Building, with its high-arching Golden Doorway, the only experimental building on the grounds.