The Chicago World’s Fair opened to the public May 1, 1893 (126 years ago this day) and continued a brief six months until October 30 when the brutal Chicago winter weather overwhelmed the mostly-outdoor venue of over 1-square mile. Virtually all the 200+ structures created for the fair were intended to be temporary, and yet the imagery and creativity will last forever in its extraordinary legend and lore! The ironies, macabre horrors, social contradictions, strange mysteries, the incredible crowds (27.5 million), and the human-interest stories are almost endless and quite often … downright unbelievable.
I’m not sure even fiction author John Grisham could make this stuff up. There was local, national and international political intrigue galore. The fair played host to many ‘world’s first’ inventions and traditions such as the Pledge of Allegiance, Cracker Jack popcorn snack, Aunt Jemima pancakes, and the Ferris Wheel – which was intended to be the American engineering response to the Eiffel tower recently featured in the 1889 World Exhibition in Paris. During all the excitement, a handsome doctor hid the murdered female bodies in the basement of his new hotel under construction (a feature film is pending). Among the massive crowds, we notice an impressive list of famous who’s-who including Nikola Tesla, Harry Houdini, Thomas Edison, Scott Joplin, Frederick Douglass, Woodrow Wilson, and Teddy Roosevelt. And while the world watched, Chicago’s still-famous crime grabbed headlines with the assassination of a local head of state.
It was a period in American history consisting of the final years of an amazing 19th Century, as well as the last breaths of what later would be termed The Gilded Age. President Grover Cleveland was midway through his second (nonconsecutive) “Bourbon Democrat” administration. The fair, also known as the World’s Colombian Exposition, could be considered as the inspirational beginnings of the subsequent Progressive Era which ushered in widespread social activism and political reform. We must remember this was still a time of American recovery from the bloody war between the States little more than 25 years earlier.
Former slaves were slowly gaining social respect and standing. Women were pursuing the simple right to vote. Native Americans and Chinese immigrants were in the fray of assimilation procedures.
In fact, this Exposition featured a Women’s Pavilion (the first was in Philadelphia 1876) that allowed the ladies to highlight female values and abilities in society. The building itself was designed by a young female architect, Sophia Hayden, who had just graduated from the School of Architecture at MIT.
Affectionately, and sarcastically, deemed The White City because of the overwhelming use of lightly colored temporary and ephemeral materials – think of plaster-paris theatrical stage sets. (Not to mention black Americans were excluded from participation in the fair.) But the preparatory efforts to forever impress the world were anything but momentary musings. The country’s best (probably the world’s best) land planners, architects, landscape designers, builders, financiers and political powers gathered together to plan how best to show off to other nations all the extraordinary qualities and benefits of the US Midwest and the city of Chicago in particular. After all, Chicago was proud to have been chosen to host the fair over its rivals St. Louis, Washington DC, and New York City.
The dream team of American Architects:
“(Daniel) Burnham met the eastern architects Monday evening, December 22 (1890), at the Players Club, for dinner. Their cheeks were red from the cold. They shook hands: (Richard M.) Hunt, (Charles) McKim, (George B.) Post, and (Robert) Peabody – Peabody, down from Boston for the meeting. Here they were, gathered at one table, the nation’s foremost practitioners of what Goethe and Schelling called “frozen music.” All were wealthy and at the peaks of their careers, but all also bore the scars of nineteenth-century life, their pasts full of wrecked rail cars, fevers, and the premature deaths of loved ones. They wore dark suits and crisp white collars. All had mustaches, some dark, some gray. Post was huge, the largest man in the room. Hunt was fierce, a frown in a suit, with a client list that included most of America’s richest families. Every other mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, and along Fifth Avenue in New York seemed to have been designed by him, but he also had built the base for the Statue of Liberty and was a founder of the American Institute of Architects.” (page 79, The Devil in the White City)
With barely two and a half years until opening day, in January 1891, ten architects (including Chicago’s own Louis Sullivan) were authorized a fee of $10,000 each (about $300k today) by the Committee on Grounds and Buildings. They, along with landscape mastermind Frederick Law Olmstead, had 30 months to not only design and detail Jackson Park and its 200+ structures on paper … but to fully construct them as well! It was an almost impossible undertaking, yet an entrepreneurial challenge to these men (and a few women) who possessed and displayed an extraordinary focus and self-discipline to achieve success.
Meanwhile, another project was under construction, outside the fair’s footprint – “a hotel just comfortable enough and cheap enough to lure a certain kind of clientele …”. The builder, and self-made architect, created a multi-story masonry edifice that was mildly habitable, with a great roof view of the city as well. The highlight? That was the cellar, where proprietor Dr. H.H. Holmes installed a brick kiln that heated up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Although a very strange accessory to a hotel, nobody seemed to care. Today’s safety reviews by building officials didn’t exist yet. And the times were hard – thousands of workers laid off in other parts of the country flocked to Chicago for jobs … any job at any price … without questioning their employer. Later, too late for many, it would be revealed that Holmes was a psychopathic killer who used the kiln to destroy the evidence – the bodies. He would later write “I was born with the devil in me, I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.” (The Devil in the White City)
As the fair came to an end, so did it’s impressive economic impact. Now, ten thousand construction workers had to find new jobs.
Not many jobs were available at this time but luckily, many of the fair’s artists and artisans were subsequently hired to decorate the magnificent Beaux-Arts style Thomas Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress completed in 1897. More on this topic in a future post. https://www.aoc.gov/capitol-buildings/thomas-jefferson-building
Pig iron production fell by fifty percent. Rental properties went vacant. The fair was over and Chicago’s criminal violence crept back in force. Case in point, on October 28th (2 days before the fair’s last) at approximately 8pm, Chicago’s mayor Harrison was shot and killed by a man who simply didn’t get the position the mayor promised him. The New York World newspaper stated at the fair’s closing that hundreds of persons had gone missing during the previous 120 weeks, and the Chicago police had no answers.
“The White City had drawn men and protected them; the Black City now welcomed them back, on the eve of winter, with filth, starvation, and violence.” (The Devil in the White City)
At its closing end, Daniel Burnham, a prominent Chicago architect himself and the fair’s Director of Works, could finally take a breath after several solid years of constant effort. He had organized and orchestrated the entire thing to a successful completion. His White City was a classical creation that proudly featured ancient Greek and Roman forms in its master-plan vistas and views, its sculptural art, and of course its architectural massing forms and ornamental details…with few exceptions. (So spectacular, the scene inspired Frank Baum when he imagined The Emerald City in the 1939 movie: The Wizard of Oz) These gleaming white structures sparkled and glowed due to the finished covering being primarily plaster of paris and hemp fiber, which was then sprayed with a whitewash using the latest technology – an electric pump. Of course, this material was never intended to be permanent – no, just the opposite – it made the project faster to build, lowered the costs, and allowed quicker demolition and recovery at the end. And the fair’s end did come. But new beginnings came too. A new century was just around the corner.
The fair soon thereafter had paid for itself and inspired new ideas and excited creative ingenuity all across America! Seriously now – lets consider – it was a massive, extremely inventive, event that first featured the likes of Hershey chocolate, Juicy Fruit & Spearmint chewing gum, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Vienna sausage, the zipper fastener, and the first ever brownie! That’s what I call a great American success story!
- Sir Banister Fletcher’s A HISTORY OF ARCHITECTURE; 1987 The Royal Institute of British Architects and The university of London
- THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that changed America; 2004 by Erik Larson
D. Tracy Ward, Architect
Uploaded May 1, 2019 – DTW’s Blog #0039
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