The White City

The fair was no mere stage set; it was a real working city with the most advanced transportation system in the world.

The buildings might have been imitations of the ancients—a derivative architecture, critics scoffed —but many people reported feeling a surge of “Americanism” on entering the Court of Honor. They saw the architecture as a return not to the Rome of the Caesars but to the chaste classicism of Thomas Jefferson, “a return to our better selves.” Then, too, French’s sixty-five-foot-high Republic bore an uncanny resemblance to the Statue of Liberty, while the Administration Building looked strikingly like the Capitol in Washington. It was an American Forum to rival Rome’s, one patriot enthused, and its popularity hastened the spread of a neoclassical eclecticism that has given the country some of its handsomest civic buildings.

The White City, however, was no mere architectural stage set, as some historians have argued. It was a nearly complete miniature city equipped with its own sewage, water, and electric-power plants, fire, police, street cleaning, and governing bodies, and the most advanced urban transportation system in the world. Writing at the time, John Coleman Adams suggested it as an answer to “the blot and failure of modern civilization, the great city of the end of the century.” It was designed, he pointed out, with the pedestrian in mind and was planned to handle large crowds without the push and congestion of big-city streets. The spacious exhibition halls were arranged in sympathy with their natural surroundings and were conveniently interconnected by picturesque walkways and two and a half miles of watercourse. At almost every major point on the grounds, footsore sightseers could climb aboard a “swift and silent” electric launch or flag down a smaller battery-run boat—like hailing a cab—and head to the next spot on their guidebook agenda. The railroad that circled the grounds was the first in America to operate heavy, high-speed trains by electricity, and it ran on elevated tracks, posing no dangers to pedestrians at a time when trains, trolleys, and cable cars killed more than four hundred people a year on the streets of Chicago.

The streets of the White City were free of refuse and litter and patrolled by courteous Columbian Guards, drilled and uniformed like soldiers in the Prussian Army. Every water fountain was equipped with a Pasteur filter, and the model sanitary system converted sewage into solids and burned it with the ashes used for road cover and fertilizer. There were no garish commercial signs, and with the concessionaires licensed and monitored, fairgoers walked the grounds free from the nuisance of peddlers and confidence men, yet with the myriad pleasures of metropolitan life near at hand. The pavilions were vast department stores stocked with the newest consumer products, and in the course of a crowded day of sightseeing, visitors could stop at courteously staffed coffee shops, teahouses, restaurants, and beer gardens located at ground level or on rooftop terraces. The White City seemed to suggest a solution to almost every problem afflicting the modern city, even its notoriously corrupt system of government.

The fair was built and administered without scandal or “jobbery” by a committee of public-minded businessmen, architects, and engineers. Machine-style politicians had no part in it. For once “the best had been called upon to produce the best,” rejoiced John Coleman Adams. This self-anointed urban elite had a powerful faith in the transforming power of good surroundings. “Take the roughest man . . . ,” George Pullman said, “and bring him into a room elegantly carpeted and furnished and the effect upon his bearing is immediate.” Burnham and Olmsted saw civic architecture and landscaped urban spaces operating to the same effect. Never, Adams said, had he seen such well-behaved and “tidy” public crowds as those he saw that magical summer at the Chicago fair.