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The White City

June 2024
30min read


“The world’s greatest achievement of the departing century was pulled off in Chicago,” said George Ade, one of the city’s first important writers. “The Columbian Exposition was the most stupendous, interesting and significant show ever spread out for the public.” The fair drew an estimated twenty-seven million people, making it the greatest tourist attraction in American history. And it was a cultural phenomenon of profound importance. Richard Harding Davis, the leading correspondent of the day, called it “the greatest event in the history of the country since the Civil War.” The exposition that was to celebrate—one year late—the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World marked America’s emergence from the carnage and bitterness of the war as a reunified nation of unrivaled power and wealth. The imperial architecture of the exposition’s pavilions, the full-scale replica of the battleship Illinois at the fair’s Naval Pier, and the astonishing exhibits of American advances in science, technology, and the world-transforming arts of mass production and merchandising announced that the approaching century would be indisputably ours.

But if this was America’s fair, it was even more so Chicago’s. “History will call it the Chicago World’s Fair,” a reporter predicted even before the exposition opened. “It is useless to expect otherwise.” At no other world’s fair, then or after, was there a closer identification between the host city and the show it put on. Almost on its own, Chicago financed and built the fair, and it remains, for many Chicagoans, the greatest event in their city’s history. It was Chicago’s “fete day,” wrote the novelist Robert Herrick in his memoirs of the 1890s, “when it proclaimed to everybody that in spite of... [its] haste and ugliness and makeshift character ... it had preserved its love of the ideal, of beauty and could accomplish it too—could achieve anything!”


Herrick was recalling, of course, the stately White City that Daniel Hudson Burnham constructed on the shores of Lake Michigan, a vision of the “City Beautiful” that would shape American architecture and planning far into the next century. Seen by observers then and historians later as the antithesis of the monster industrial metropolis that spread out all around it, Burnham’s festival city “in a way was Chicago,” said Herrick, “its dream, its ideal, its noblest self incarnated in magnificent buildings, in splendor of size and beauty.” It was an emphatic declaration that Chicago had arrived as a city of global consequence, a center of culture and architecture as well as moneymaking. To Chicagoans it seemed fitting that their city celebrate its amazing recovery from the Great Fire of 1871, a two-day holocaust that consumed the entire central core of the city, by building an instant city that was both a symbol of what it had accomplished and a dream of what it hoped to become—first in wealth and first in beauty, in the confident estimate of the young Theodore Dreiser, “first of all American if not all European or world cities.”

Every great city has a moment when it becomes aware of its place in history. For Chicago, that moment was 1893.

There is in the life of any great city a moment when it becomes fully conscious of its place in history. For Chicago that moment was 1893. In that year the world’s first skyscraper city had a population of more than one million people, and among them was an early settler who remembered it as a desolate trading post of some thirty souls living between a swamp and a sand-choked river. Without ever leaving Chicago, this old man had moved, by 1893, from the country to the city, from an agrarian to an industrial America, and had lived, in the process, through the entire history of his still-growing city.

The nineteenth century was America’s “age of cities.” Between 1789, when Gen. George Washington set out from Mount Vernon for New York City to be sworn in as the nation’s first President, and 1889, when Jane Addams set out from Rockford, Illinois, to open a settlement house in a Chicago slum, the country’s urban population had increased more than one hundred times, while the total population had multiplied only sixteen times. And of all the cities of the country—of the world, in fact—none had grown faster or was more representative of the century than “astonishing Chicago,” as Mark Twain called it. “There is in history no parallel to [Chicago’s growth],” wrote Charles Dudley Warner, “not St. Petersburg rising out of the marshes at an imperial edict, nor Berlin, the magic creation of a consolidated empire and a Caesar’s power.”

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.


“Chicago will be the main exhibit at the Columbian Exposition,” wrote Julian Ralph in the travel guide prepared for East Coast visitors to the fair. A train ride to that “miracle” city would be a ride, he said, into the next century.

This was the morning time of luxury long-distance train travel, and thousands of fairgoers from Eastern cities traveled to Chicago in the contrivances that had made land travel comfortable for the first time in history—George Pullman’s sleeping cars, “palaces on wheels” built in the model industrial town Pullman had constructed on a drained marsh south of Chicago. Running at eighty miles an hour and stopping only to change locomotives, the Exposition Flyers leaving New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., gave many Americans their first look at the country beyond the Alleghenies—another reason, Chicago’s promoters had argued, for holding the fair in their midland metropolis.

After an all-night run across the prairie that stretched beyond the low hills of Ohio, the first sign of city life from the big windows of the Pullman cars the next morning was the converging of networks of steel rails toward a common destination, the “boss town of America,” the Pullman porters called it.

Steaming toward the heart of Chicago amid the furious clanging of their engine bells, the Eastern express trains passed through an industrial amphitheater bigger and blacker than Pittsburgh—endless reaches of factories, slaughtering houses, grain elevators, steel mills, and freight yards, and slag heaps and coal piles that looked like small mountains. Soot-covered cable cars and long lines of freight wagons waited at crossings for the “whizzers” to shoot by, and everywhere, covering everything, were wind-driven clouds of black and gray smoke, a “sky of soot” wrote a reporter, “under the earth of flaming ovens.”

Horrified architect: “Do you mean to say you really expect to open a fair here by ’93?” Burnham: “The point is settled!”

From the imperial waiting rooms of Chicago’s train stations, out-of-towners were carried to their hotels in carriages or on cable cars, and on the way they caught their first glimpse of what they had heard was the busiest and noisiest downtown in the world. “A born New Yorker, the energy, roar, and bustle of the place were yet sufficient to first astonish and then fatigue me,” wrote Julian Ralph. “Certain streets of Chicago [are] so packed with people as to make Broadway look desolate and solitudinous by comparison.” Manhattan’s commercial growth extended along its radiating avenues, but Chicago’s was concentrated in a single square mile between the lake and the Chicago River, the most densely packed commercial center of any large city. Its incessant “turmoil and rush” had struck Rudyard Kipling, in his brief visit there in 1887, as the perfect example of the American “Gospel of Rush.” And the city was ugly and dirty, he thought, beyond belief. “Having seen it,” he said, “I urgently desire never to see it again.”

Others, however, found the crowding and energy of Chicago exhilarating. “The business section so sordid to others was grandly terrifying to us,” Hamlin Garland recalled of his and his brother’s initial walk through Chicago, as they counted the stories of the tall buildings and absorbed “the drama of the pavement.... Nothing was commonplace, nothing was ugly to us.”

When you walked into the downtown, “you could feel what Chicago meant,” Theodore Dreiser wrote, describing his first impression of the city, “—eagerness, hope, and desire.” Here were “crowds, opportunities, theaters, museums. . . . Here was a seething city in the making.”


Kipling and Dreiser described two Chicagos that were really one, a city of extreme, even violent, contrasts—“queen and guttersnipe of cities,” an American journalist called it, “cynosure and cesspool of the world.” The “most American of cities,” more than three-quarters of its residents were of foreign parentage in 1893. Garden city of parks and tree-bordered boulevards, the majority of its streets were filled with uncollected horse manure and putrid animal corpses. Temperance capital of the country—headquarters of the globe-touring evangelist Dwight L. Moody and of Frances E. Willard’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union—it had one saloon for every two hundred persons, its second-largest industry was liquor distilling, and its world-famous vice district operated around the clock with police protection. “The only completely corrupt city in the country” and a stronghold of antilabor and antiradical sentiment after the Haymarket Square Riot of 1886, it was the center of the nation’s trade union and socialist movements and a rallying ground for urban reformers. Magnet city of the mid-continent, it was portrayed by prairie newspapers as a place their young people should shun, where thieves and white slavers lay in wait. “All America,” wrote a horrified German visitor, “looks with fear at this city that hurls her threat over the country.”

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.

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.


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.

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.

Another reason the White City was so reassuring to Adams and others anxious about urban changes was that its architecture, like the public buildings in the Utopian city of Edward Bellamy’s widely read novel Looking Backward , was traditional and familiar—what almost everyone thought a great city should look like. Yet while the emphasis was on formal order and ancient grandeur on the outside, on display inside the crowded main pavilions were the newest inventions of the day. This was the dawning of the electric age, and in the Electricity Building on the Court of Honor could be seen the work of the “wizards” who were inventing the future. There were electric kitchens and calculating machines, electric brushes for relieving headaches, electric chairs for “humane” executions, and what sightseers considered two of the marvels of the age by two of its technological heroes, Elisha Gray’s teleautograph for transmitting facsimile writing or drawings by telegraph—Victorian America’s fax machine—and Thomas A. Edison’s Kinetoscope, a peepshow device for viewing motion pictures on celluloid film (that April Edison had opened the world’s first nickelodeon in Manhattan). Fairgoers could see demonstrations of long-distance calls over Bell Telephone lines, and as they walked about the building, they were treated to live orchestra music transmitted over wires from New York and broadcast through a “mammoth telephone” suspended from the roof.

In Burnham’s chaste city, tradition and change, order and innovation, were in perfect harmony, suggesting to people that they could enjoy all the benefits and conveniences of the coming technological age without changing their settled values and habits. Edison had invented the incandescent light bulb in 1879, but to many fairgoers from farms and small towns electricity remained a mysterious, even frightening, force. By giving the uninitiated a chance to examine the new electrical devices up close and in action, the fair demystified electricity and helped create a greater demand for it, soothing fears, all the while, that ungoverned science was rushing mankind toward ruin, as Henry Adams argued after visiting the hall that housed the low-humming dynamos that provided electric current for the fair. “I used to be afraid that the government was all a goin’ to pieces and that my fighting for Uncle Sam at Gettysburg was of no use,” says a prairie farmer in one of the dozens of novels inspired by the fair, “but I ain’t any more afraid of the world bustin’ up. People that made the machinery that I’ve seen ... have too much sense.”

Sightseers who stayed on the grounds into the evening received an unforgettable display of the “splendors” of electricity in the nighttime illumination of the Court of Honor. The symmetrical outlines of the ghostly palaces were “etched in fire against the blackness of the night,” as one writer described it, while giant searchlights swept the basin and settled on the electric fountains, which shot up illuminated jets of colored water. A fireworks display lit the sky over the Peristyle, and electric boats strung with lines of lights streaked across the waters of the lagoon like swarms of fireflies.

The crowds that lined the banks of the lagoons and canals on these summer evenings were seeing more than an entertainment. The show transported them to the Electric City of the approaching age, where a “blaze of lights” would banish the “fearful mysteries of the darkness,” one writer predicted, giving back the city’s streets to decent folk. In the coming years electricity would run America’s factories and trains and heat its houses and businesses, said an engineer interviewed at the fair, clearing the air in its cities of grime and smoke.

This prophet was a thirty-four-year-old bridge designer from Pittsburgh named George Washington Gale Ferris. His big steel wheel on the Midway Plaisance, the exposition’s commercially run entertainment strip, was the fair’s only rival in popular appeal to the nighttime illumination, and a foretaste of how technology would usher in a new industry of mass entertainment.

Ferris got the inspiration for his invention from Daniel Burnham’s challenge to the American engineers to create something that would outdo the Eiffel Tower, the chief exhibit at the Paris world’s fair of 1889. Plans came in for towers higher than Eiffel’s and even for a range of man-made mountains, but Ferris was the only engineer to submit something new and technically audacious, a proposal, as someone at the time described it, to put Eiffel’s observatory on a pivot and set in motion. He built his wheel in five months with his own money and assembled it in Jackson Park in June. When the 140-foot-high towers were anchored in concrete, the forty-five-ton axle—the largest piece of steel forged up to that time—was lifted into the sockets of the towers and acrobatic construction workers pieced together the spider web of steel rods that held the wheel in perfect tension. When the 250-foot-diameter wheel was finished, it was ringed with three thousand electric bulbs.

As dusk fell, the fair transported the crowds lining the lagoon to the Electric City of the coming age.

Ferris took the first ride on June 21 with his wife. At the top of the wheel’s revolution, a point higher than the crown of the Statue of Liberty, they could make out the tops of the business towers of Chicago.

“The World’s Greatest Ride” was a carnival attraction to beat them all. More than 1.4 million riders paid fifty cents apiece for two revolutions in one of its thirty-six wood-veneered cabins, each larger than a Pullman car. But skeptics were persuaded of the wheel’s strength and safety only when it withstood hurricane winds of a hundred miles per hour. Ferris, his wife, and a reporter rode out the gale in one of the cars. The windows shook, the blasts were deafening, but the wheel “hardly shivered” as it made its slow, majestic orbit.

When the fair closed, the Ferris wheel appeared at two other sites before it was dynamited and sold for scrap metal. The father of all entertainment wheels, it helped bring in the age of the amusement park. After visiting the fair on his honeymoon, George C. Tilyou ordered a wheel half the size of Ferris’s and built his Coney Island Steeplechase Park around it. “We Americans,” he told a journalist, “want either to be thrilled or amused, and are ready to pay well for either sensation.”

Tilyou was persuaded of this after visiting the Midway. “A place of great and genuine wonders,” it had the exotic, the informative, and the just plain ridiculous: mosques and pagodas, German and Irish villages, Hindu jugglers, a young escape artist named Harry Houdini, boxing exhibitions by Gentleman Jim Corbett, an exhibit featuring a two-headed pig, an International Beauty Show, Hagenbeck’s Trained Animal Show, and a model of Blarney Castle, where, for a charge, a customer could kiss a piece of the Blarney Stone, which turned out to be a segment of Chicago paving block.

The White City was a pictorial and passive experience. In it you were a spectator—a student in a lecture hall—and many earnest sightseers sat on benches and took notes. The Midway, on the other hand, was a rousing urban drama, with fairgoers playing the parts of both actor and audience. The architecture was a riot of Turkish domes, Dutch peaks, and Venetian arches. People could play the clown on a camel in the Streets of Cairo exhibit, the fool in an Indian palanquin, or the child on the Ferris wheel, and observers spoke of a “Midway spirit,” a sensation of “reason desert[ing] you when you entered the Nighttime.”

The Court of Honor was too stiff and didactic for many of Chicago’s working-class people, and the exhibits of modern machinery seemed too uncomfortably close to their lives. “A wurruld’s fair is no rollin’-mills,” Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley tells one of his barroom customers. “If it was, ye’d be paid f’r goin’ there. ‘Tis a big circus with manny rings an’ that’s what it ought to be.”

Burnham tried to counter the pull of the Midway by enlivening the White City. Open-air concerts featuring the rousing military marches of John Philip Sousa were staged in the Court of Honor, and there were gondola regattas and swimming contests in the lagoon, tugs-of-war between various nationalities, donkey races, and tightrope-walking performances. But nothing rivaled the animation of the Midway, where a black pianist named Scott Joplin played a new kind of music called ragtime.

The impresario of the Midway was Sol Bloom, a twenty-two-year-old Polish immigrant. Originally the Midway was to have been a serious archeology exhibit under the direction of a Harvard scientist, F. W. Putnam. But when Bloom was given charge of installing the exhibits, he used his theater experience to turn it into the world’s first amusement park, with Putnam’s ethnological displays in a subordinate position. Putting Putnam in charge of the Midway, Bloom said later, was like making Albert Einstein manager of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus.

Bloom loved Middle Eastern exotica and placed his Algerian Theater and related exhibits in the most prominent places on the Midway. His feature performer, “Little Egypt, the Darling of the Nile,” performed the danse du ventre . “When the public learned that the literal translation was ‘belly dance,’” Bloom recalled, “they delightedly concluded that it must be salacious and immoral. The crowds poured in. I had a gold mine.” To combat such “lasciviousness” and use the opportunity of the fair to convert the “wickedest city in the west,” the revivalist Dwight Moody organized a massive evangelical campaign that drew tens of thousands of fairgoers to his tent tabernacles, which spread out around Jackson Park like the camp of a besieging army.


The venerable black leader Frederick Douglass found something more seriously objectionable about the fair’s exhibits: their total exclusion of the accomplishments of African-Americans. The only blacks in a prominent place on the exposition grounds were a village of Dahomeyans on display on the Midway. The exposition’s managers evidently wanted black Americans to be represented by the “barbarious rites [of] African savages brought to act the monkey,” Douglass charged, and helped his young friend Ida B. Wells write and distribute to foreign visitors an impassioned broadside, “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition.” But when Wells boycotted Colored People’s Day, claiming it was being staged to ridicule Negroes (a claim given force when twenty-five hundred watermelons were provided for the crowd), Douglass stayed on the grounds and used the occasion to decry the American government’s failure to protect blacks from discrimination and lynchings.

Douglass called the fair a “whited sepulcher,” and that analogy carried over into areas other than its mistreatment of black people. In a fair that purported to present an urban Utopia, there were no exhibits on model worker’s housing or even on the actual operations of Chicago’s Hull House, the country’s leading laboratory for urban ideas. In the White City, urban problems appeared only in the form of their proposed solutions, and the solutions were only for problems that could be “solved” by architecture and the industrial arts.


Built at a time of rising prosperity, the fair saw its final act take place in an atmosphere of economic crisis and labor upheaval. In the fall of 1893, as the nationwide depression that had begun earlier that year deepened, tens of thousands of men poured into Chicago on freight trains and joined its growing number of unemployed laborers in demonstrations for bread and jobs outside the exposition grounds. The five-term mayor Carter Harrison tried to blunt the impact of the worsening depression with publicworks spending. The greatest Chicago public-works project was the fair itself, and Harrison petitioned Congress to keep it open into November and to reopen it in the following spring for another season. Speaking on “All Cities Day,” the second-to-last day of the fair, he said it almost sickened him “to think that it will be torn down in a few days.”

It was Harrison’s last public appearance. Later that day he was shot and killed in the foyer of his home by a disgruntled office seeker. In respect for his memory, . the pageantry scheduled for the fair’s final day was canceled. At sunset on October 30 a cannon salute and the lowering of a weather-worn American flag signaled the official closing of the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Visiting the grounds the following January, a Chicago reporter found the buildings disfigured by coal dust, with great patches of plaster peeling from their facades. Groups of desperate unemployed men had taken refuge in the Court of Honor, now a gray and grimy city of the homeless. The following July, at the end of a day of violence between striking Pullman railroad workers and federal troops commanded by General Miles, the former grand marshal of the fair, a fire of unknown origin swept through the Court of Honor, and more than a hundred thousand people gathered on the grounds to watch a three-hour “spectacle that... exceeded anything of the kind that had occurred since the Great Fire of 1871.” The orderly crowd looked on in silence as if it was watching a fireworks display of the previous summer. “There was no regret; rather a feeling of pleasure that the elements and not the wrecker should wipe out the spectacle of the Columbian season,” the Tribune reported.

The fair’s richest legacy is its builders’ faith in the possibilities of urban life, that a city could be made of art.

Like the Great Fire, the burning of the White City was seen by many Chicagoans as an opportunity for a fresh start. That summer Daniel Burnham began conceiving plans for a series of civic improvements that would transform Jackson Park and the entire municipal lakeshore into a vast pleasure ground, the landscape centerpiece of his Chicago Plan of 1909, the greatest civic project to come out of the fair. Chicago owes its peerless lakefront and the boulevard character of Michigan Avenue to Burnham’s plan, but that plan—like the City Beautiful improvements he fashioned for Cleveland, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.—made no provision for the needs of ethnic and black neighborhoods, the worlds of Jane Addams’s Italian immigrants, Mr. Dooley’s saloon-house cronies, or Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas, who utters the epitaph of Burnham’s White City vision: “Goddamit, look! We live here and they live there.... They got things and we ain’t.”

The White City’s richest legacy is the confidence of its builders in the possibilities of urban life, their unassailable belief that the modern metropolis, with its enormous and multiplying problems, could be made over into a conscious work of art. But a great city is not a work of inspired scene painting, static and splendid. It is a living drama with a huge and varied cast and a plot full of conflict, tension, spectacle, and significance. And a big city’s volatile diversity and explosive energy—the very factors Burnham and Olmsted hoped to tame and discipline—enliven the drama and “bring the performers,” as Lewis Mumford wrote, “to the highest pitch of skilled, intensely conscious participation.”

Chicago’s visionary White City planner failed, in the end, to heed the lessons his own tumultuous city provided in 1893: that a city’s greatness is the result of an uneasy balance between order and energy, planning and privatism, diversity and conformity, vice and reform, art and enterprise, high culture and low culture, the smart and the shabby, the permanent and the temporary. Interesting cities are places of stimulating disparity and moral conflict, where crudity and commerce are often accompanied by memorable advances in the arts. And like Aristotle’s Athens, a city of filthy streets, chaotic markets, and scandalous sanitary facilities, they specialize in the making and remaking of interesting human beings—like the bright products of Chicago’s railway hinterland, Theodore Dreiser, Hamlin Garland Jane Addams, Clarence Darrow, George Ade, Ida Wells, and Frank Lloyd Wright, who arrived in the city around the time of the fair.

The industrial metropolis, we tend to forget, was an absolutely new thing to this generation, its culture nothing short of revolutionary. To them it was as strange, exotic, and thrillingly new as Burnham’s city of wonders in Jackson Park.

“Chicago,” wrote Dreiser, “was like no other city in the world ... a city which had no traditions but which was making them.” Recalling those “furnace days” of his and Chicago’s life, he said that “it was something wonderful... to see a world metropolis spring up under your eyes.” Florence “in its best days must have been something like this to young Florentines...”

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