A World’s Fair To Remember

Gleaming white buildings. Miles of freshly-dug lagoons. Venetian gondolas. A Ferris Wheel. These were the images that came to mind when I was first asked a question over dinner one evening. “If I could go back in time, to any point in history, where and when would I choose?”

I suspect that there are as many different responses to that question as there are people on the planet, but this time and place is what popped into my head. The year was 1893; a time which personified the possibilities of the new century that lay just ahead. It was a time of great imagination and innovation and pride. I wanted to visit the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Ever since reading Eric Larsen’s The Devil in the White City more than a decade ago, I have been drawn to this particular World’s Fair which lasted six months from May to October 1893. With the delays and politics and egos, horrific weather and an impossible time frame in which to build it, this fair never should have happened. But it did. And it was spectacular.

Maybe I should start at the beginning. The year 1893 would mark the 400th year since Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America and the United States wanted to commemorate it.

There were rumors that America had been grumbling about how France had done something unprecedented just a few years prior in 1889. They opened the Exposition Universelle. It was an enormous undertaking and it’s architectural “pièce de résistance” was a tower of iron 1000 feet high named for its designer: Alexandre Gustave Eiffel.  The feeling was if France could put on a successful World’s Fair, so could the United States. The commemoration was an opportunity.

So, after a competition between New York City, Washington D.C. and St. Louis, Chicago was awarded the responsibility to build what amounted to an entire city, and one that needed to surpass the French World’s Fair, and they had to do it in just over three years. It took the Chicago committee six months alone to even select the exact location. They ultimately chose Jackson Park; 600 acres of land just south of the business district, because it was adjacent to the beautiful Lake Michigan.

The forces that worked against the success of the fair were formidable. It was difficult getting architects to agree to the project, they saw risk in putting their names on something that might prove a failure. And there was the “the bedeviling character of Chicago’s soil.” (The bedrock used for stability in building lay too far below an uneven mix of sand and clay.) Union strikes broke out once the building did begin and wind storms took off roofs and collapsed parts of buildings just months before the opening.

The “Director of Works of the Exposition” was a successful Chicago architect named Daniel Burnham and he believed in this project. He had a vision rooted to sheer will of what it could mean to America and to the world. And he was committed to making his vision a reality. Sometime in 1890-91, he was quoted as saying “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” 

And the architects who finally came on board did not disappoint. When they met in Chicago in 1891 to share their designs with one another, they realized that they had collaborated on a magnificent vision. Their grand scale and neo-classical design drew the comparison of the group to “the Italian Renaissance geniuses who built Florence.” Six of these buildings would majestically stand around the basin of the Court of Honor; the showpiece of the Exposition.

George P. Post’s Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building was the largest building proposed, it would require enough steel to build two Brooklyn Bridges and it enclosed a 40-acre lot. Its floor alone used 5 train carloads of nails. And the irony? All of these buildings were temporary (with one exception.) Everyone understood that their work would be demolished after the fair closed. They would stand for just a moment in time; not unlike modern art installations created by famed artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude who famously wrapped the German Reichstag building in Berlin in fabric.

The Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building

Partly based on this transient fate and the severe time constraints as well, they agreed to clad their exteriors in staff which was a stucco-like combination of plaster and jute fiber instead of stone and brick. Once building began, so did the debate over color. There was great concern that many separate colors would distract and break-up the overall continuity of the structures. Burnham made the decision to “make it all perfectly white.” The Mines building was nearly complete at that point, so they tested a creamy white on it. Francis Millet was hired to supervise the painting and ultimately chose “an ordinary white lead and oil” as the best paint for staff. The White City was born.

Palace of Mechanic Arts Computer Graphic

Burnham was definitely thinking big. As one of his many tasks, he was familiar with the success of the Eiffel Tower at the previous fair and he wanted something bigger. He put out the word for American engineers to design a structure that could “out Eiffel-Eiffel.” Although submissions began to arrive, they were all towers; towers that were higher than the Eiffel version. One was a double tower. Another moved with hydraulics.

At one point, Burnham attended a session of the Saturday Afternoon Club. It was an informal club whose “members” were engineers from around the country; they were in Chicago on jobs related to the fair. He again stressed the need for a “distinctive feature” for the fair. One man was in the room and an idea came to him. He proposed his concept to Burnham and the fair’s committee who both politely turned it down.

But the engineer didn’t give up. He could see it. He could see a wheel that would stand 300 feet into the sky. There would be 36 cars attached, each the size of a Pullman and they would hold 60 people each. This engineer adapted his design, addressing the committee’s concerns, and with time running out, they finally agreed to his proposal.  His name was George Ferris.

Although the opening of Ferris’s Wheel was delayed for 51 days after the fair had already begun, it was clear that he had “out Eiffeled-Eiffel.”  With its height and 20 minutes for a single revolution, Ferris had created an entirely new physical sensation. An assistant to Ferris who was in charge of the completion and testing phase, began to feel the true power of the experience when it began its descent. As he said at that moment “It was a most beautiful sight one obtains in the descent of the car, for then the whole fair grounds are laid before you. The view is so grand that all timidity left me and my watching the movement of the car was abandoned.” When it opened to the public, it was a runaway success. Today, a University of Chicago building stands where the Ferris Wheel once spun.

1893, Chicago, Illinois, USA — Ferris Wheel and general overhead view of part of Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

It is impossible not to mention the contributions of Frederick Law Olmsted to the fair. He is the “father” of landscape architecture. He and his partner had previously designed Central Park in New York City and the U.S. Capitol grounds. (His work would later include the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.) He was responsible for the concept and design of the lagoons, the Wooded Island and much more.

He actually detested formal garden beds; he preferred using the naturally occurring features of a given space which would prove a challenge in Chicago. He was starting with sparse landscaping (a few trees that appeared half-dead) and ground that was frozen for months during the winter. Temporary roads built for construction purposes crushed his test plantings and the ever-changing levels of Lake Michigan ruined the roots of thousands of pond lily plantings, to name just a few of those challenges. But Olmsted (who was in frail health for much of the development) prevailed, even to the end when it stormed relentlessly for two days before Opening Day, flooding his elegant paths. His vision of lagoons and the Wooded Island remain integral to the overall fantasy of the fair.

And then there was the Midway Plaisance. As guests walked the mile-long Midway east towards the entrance to Jackson Park, they were enveloped with the sights and sounds of over 40 exhibits – some were the size of a small town. There was the California Ostrich Farm, the Austrian Village and the Captive Balloon Park which offered balloon rides, and of course, the Ferris Wheel. They also rode the Ice Railway “a descending elliptical track of ice over which 2 coupled bobsleds could reach speeds of 40 miles an hour.” There was a Natatorium which offered swimming and bathing and several banquet rooms too. They could also stop at the Avenue of Nations which ran along the Midway for 13 blocks.

 If ragtime music was your thing, pianist Scott Joplin held concerts. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and famed lawyer Clarence Darrow all gave speeches.

A couple of months before opening, ships began arriving with Sphinxes, Mummies, and coffee trees. One approved attraction called “Street in Cairo”, brought in 175 residents of Cairo, 20 donkeys 7 camels, monkeys and deadly snakes. It included a Persian concession, a Moorish palace and an Algerian Village whose belly dancing performances were wildly popular.

The parallel between this portion of the Midway and the modern Epcot Center at Disney World did not escape me. In fact, Walt Disney’s father Elias was part of a White City crew responsible for tearing it down after it was over. His stories definitely had an impact on his son Walt and his future Magic Kingdom. Wikipedia states that “Epcot is dedicated to the celebration of human achievement, namely technological innovation and international culture, and is often referred to as a “permanent world’s fair”.

Fun Fair Facts

Cracker Jack, Shredded Wheat cereal and Juicy Fruit gum were all introduced at the fair.

A new beer was introduced and won the exposition’s top beer award. The brewer forever named it “Pabst Blue Ribbon.”

The Movable Sidewalk, today a staple at airports, made its first appearance on the south pier.

The first automatic dishwasher was on display.

46 countries participated.

There was a total of 27.5 million visits and its biggest day was 751,000 visitors (smashing the biggest one-day total of 397,000 at the Paris Exposition.) This was a source of American pride.

The Women’s Building was designed solely by a female architect. Its exhibitions celebrated women’s progress.

Frank Lloyd Wright, then a young architect, is believed to have found inspiration in the fair’s Japanese exhibits.

Fair officials created their own police force, the Columbian Guards. They made 2929 arrests over the six months, usually for disorderly conduct, petty theft and pickpocketing.

It took 22 million dollars to build – double than anticipated.

The fair was entirely lit and powered by George Westinghouse’s system of alternating current power. Thus, the White City glowed at night, lit by thousands of incandescent electric bulbs.

One building remained on site and is still open to visitors. It was originally named the Palace of Fine Arts, which was built to showcase artworks, and it is now the home to the Western Hemisphere’s largest science museum: The Museum of Science and Industry.

This leads me to why I chose this moment in time. First, it’s true that I had lived in Chicagoland for 35 years and my many visits to the Museum of Science and Industry made me feel a connection to the fair.

 But it’s more than that. The Columbian Exposition was on the cusp of a new century. Its scale was mammoth; inviting. Its promise on what the future could do in innovation, engineering, manufacturing and cultural awareness was palpable; it would have been exciting to feel that.

And the bottom line is it would have been exciting to feel its magic. Sir Walter Besant, the English historian and novelist, wrote in Cosmopolitan “Call it no more the White City on the Lake. It is Dreamland.”

We can go to Disney and enjoy ourselves, but remember fair visitors here were experiencing so many of the attractions for the first time ever anywhere. Close your eyes and imagine seeing the White City lit up at night with Westinghouse’s new power – an unprecedented visual. Or, climb into the sky, descending slowly with a one-of-a-kind angle towards the Lake and the Court of Honor. It was an unparalleled, condensed space of beauty, innovation, education and fun. I would gladly step into that immersive experience.

In fact, I tried. I brought my family to a lecture at the Museum of Science and Industry several years ago to watch a visual simulation created by UCLA’s Lisa Snyder. I’ll admit that I had visions of an Oculus-type 3D experience. I literally thought that I would be stepping into and hearing the exhibits of the Midway and taking a walk right into the White City. How cool would that be?

Unfortunately, it wasn’t that. But I am respectful of the detailed research Snyder and her team have worked on for almost 20 years.

As part of the lecture package, we were also given a tour where museum visitors can’t go. We went outside to the back of the building to examine some of its architectural beauty and could see some of Olmsted’s original landscaping. My son took a picture of me leaning up against one of the original lampposts. If I could only find it. This is a still shot Snyder’s team created:

Daniel Burnham would be pleased. He has managed to reach across an entire century with his magic and still has the power to stir men and women’s blood 127 years later.

Photo Credits:

Encyclopedia of Chicago (Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building)

Historythings.com (Ferris Wheel)

themaydan.com (Street scene)

Wikimedia Commons (Palace of Mechanic Arts graphic)

Additional Resources:

Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City





  1. Absolutely wonderful piece Melanie. I re-read it twice to make sure I didn’t pass over any details! I too read Devil in the White City and became obsessed with that time in Chicago history. Sorry Disney-I can’t imagine anything before or since measuring up to the Exposition!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it Pam (enough to read through it twice – wow!) I did go down the research rabbit hole on this one because the story has such a pull on me. Thank you so much for really digging into it and for including your thoughts here (haha about Disney.) I enjoy Disney but I don’t think too many people realize where his inspiration came from. 🙂


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