The United States had made an admirable showing for itself at the very first World’s Fair, the Crystal Palace Exhibition, held in the United Kingdom in 1851. British newspapers were unreserved in their praise, declaring America’s displayed inventions to be more ingenious and useful than any others at the Fair; the Liverpool Times asserted “no longer to be ridiculed, much less despised.” Unlike various European governments, which spent lavishly on their national displays in the exhibitions that followed, the US Congress was hesitant to contribute funds, forcing exhibitors to rely on individuals for support. Interest in international exhibitions fell during the nation’s bloody Civil War; things recovered quickly enough in the wake of the conflict, however, that the country could host the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876. Celebrating both American patriotism and technological progress, the Centennial Exhibition was a resounding success which set the stage for another great American fair: the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.
The city chosen to host the Fair was Chicago, the great urban center of the Midwest which had flourished exponentially in the years since its decimation by fire in 1871. The city’s population and trade, rather than being dampened by the blaze, had actually increased by the following year. It was a fitting setting for an event which was expected to showcase America’s rise from a collection of mostly rural colonies to an international power: what had been a backwater fur-trappers’ village in 1830 had, in less than a century, developed into a full-fledged metropolis with a variety of cultural amenities.
Daniel Burnham, a noted Chicago architect, was chosen to serve as the project’s director. At his disposal were 686 acres of land along the city’s southern lakefront, a vast swathe of land which he developed with the help of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. A team of architects from Chicago, New York, Boston, and Kansas City was gathered to produce the Fair’s individual buildings. Their individual efforts were united by a stylistic mandate: rather than the metal-and-glass pavilions that had characterized World’s Fairs since the Crystal Palace, this new exhibition would take on the appearance of a real and permanent “dream city” realized in the Beaux-Arts style.[4,5]
The team had less than two and a half years to plan and build their new city. A slew of proposals, many of which were for towers designed to outshine the Eiffel Tower of 1889’s Exposition, were presented and rejected by Burnham’s team, which largely enforced the Neoclassical aesthetic throughout the fairgrounds. The new city that arose on the shores of Lake Michigan was a gleaming antithesis to the rest of Chicago: an orderly ensemble of grandiose, stylistically harmonious structures arranged around an axial court of honor and reflected in a series of lagoons. The entire scene was electrically floodlit at night, bathing the city in an otherworldly glow which, to attendees, would have made the fairgrounds feel entirely removed from the industrial cities to which they were accustomed.
Three entrances allowed visitors into the fairgrounds. Pedestrians could enter from the street onto the Midway or take a steamboat from downtown Chicago to a pier on the Fair’s lakefront. Most visitors, however, arrived via the railroad terminus at the southern end of the grounds. Those who entered via the two latter means first encountered the monumental Administration Building. Designed by New York architect Richard M. Hunt, the enormous domed building housed the offices of the Exposition’s chief officers. It also set the tone for the Exposition’s fourteen “great” buildings, establishing a uniform cornice height of 60 feet (18.25 meters) and a white-stuccoed, geometrically logical Beaux-Arts aesthetic.
Several of the Fair’s other important buildings lined the same court of honor and Great Basin as the Administration Building: the Machinery Hall, the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building, the Electricity Building, and the Mines and Mining Building, all of which, with the exception of the last two, were designed by separate firms. Here, at the center of the ideal city, the architects knew their respective buildings required a unity beyond the basic style template. With this in mind, they agreed not only to match their cornice lines, but to use a twenty-five foot (7.6 meter) bay as a standard module for the façades of their buildings.
Just south of the Administration Building, the Machinery Hall was, like most of its neighbors, a Classical façade hiding a cavernous single exhibition space packed tightly with exhibits. Designed by the Boston firm Peabody & Stearns, the 435,500 square feet (40,459.27 square meters) of floor space in the Machinery Hall were unsurprisingly filled with technological marvels of the time, such as sewing machines and the world’s largest conveyor belt. The Hall also housed the 43 steam engines and 127 dynamos which provided electricity for the entire Fair. McKim, Mead,, & White of New York designed the neighboring Agricultural Hall, featured farm equipment and produce from around the world, including such unusual items as a map of the United States made of pickles and a 22,000 pound “Monster Cheese” from Canada.
The largest building at the Fair, by far, was the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building. Covering a full eleven acres, the enormous structure was used to display consumer goods not only from the United States, but from around the world. Between exhibits by manufacturers from the Americas, Europe, and Asia, visitors could also view assorted items of historical significance, including furniture owned by the King of Bavaria and a spinet which had belonged to Mozart. The Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building was so large that its waterfront façade extended for a third of a mile (.5 kilometers) along the shore of Lake Michigan.
To the north of the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building stood the U.S. Government Building and the Fisheries Pavilion. The former, designed by the Treasury Department’s supervising architect J.W. Edbrooke, was a relatively modest structure containing displays from various branches of American government. It was not considered among the Fair’s better offerings, especially when compared to the Fisheries Pavilion just across the lagoon. Designed by Chicago’s own Henry Ives Cobb, the Pavilion broke from the whitewashed Beaux-Arts standard of the buildings on the Great Basin and court of honor with colorful glazing and flags. The highlight for visitors, however, were the floor-to-ceiling aquaria within the building, which contained hundreds of species of fresh and saltwater marine life.[13,14]
Altogether, forty-three US states and twenty-three other countries contributed their own buildings to the Exposition. Unlike the larger main buildings, these were less likely to be rendered in Beaux-Arts style. The committees in charge of funding these pavilions were also tasked with designing them, resulting in an eclectic collection of styles ranging from Spanish Colonial in the California Pavilion to a reproduction of Pompeii by Vermont. There were even medieval Japanese structures on the Wooded Island that rose from the middle of Olmsted’s relatively naturalistic lagoon.
One of the most memorable elements of the Exposition had little to do with monumental architecture: the Midway Plaisance. Although initially intended to be educational, the Midway ultimately became the entertainment center for the fair. Visitors could visit reproductions of streets in Cairo or Vienna, see both a German and a Javanese village, or enjoy the wax figure museum in the Moorish Palace. Perhaps the most famous of the Midway’s amenities was the world’s first Ferris Wheel, a ride on which cost twice as much as admission to the entire fair.
The effects of the World’s Columbian Exposition were both immediate and far-reaching. The fair grounds, affectionately nicknamed “The White City,” laid the groundwork for what soon became known as the City Beautiful movement. Inspired by the Neoclassical harmony of the Exposition’s main buildings, set against the backdrop of Olmsted’s manicured parks and waterways, architects like Burnham would soon set out to transform what they saw as dirty, unsightly industrial cities into elegant and orderly successors to the White City. The movement gained traction not only in Chicago, but across the entire United States, from San Francisco in the west to Washington, D.C. in the east. It was a design philosophy which captured the imagination of a generation of architects and urban planners – one which long outlasted the temporary structures of the Exposition that proved its first—and most successful—example.
Location: Jackson Park, 1793 E Hayes Dr, Chicago, IL 60649, United States
Project Year: 1893