Sunday, February 1, 2009

The White City-1893

Chicago played host to The World's Fair of 1893 in unprecedented fashion. The keynote of the fair was to highlight the 400 year anniversary of Columbus's voyage to America. Yet, with a somewhat soft undertone America attempted to show the world that she had grown and could emulate the chic cities of Europe. I'm reminded of a great quote from Martin Scorceses' adaptation of The Age of Innocence, "It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country". But, this was in fact the goal of director's of The World's Columbian Exposition. The group was led by Charles H. Wacker with architectural direction from Daniel Burnham landscape design by Frederick Law Olmstead These men sought to impress attendees with the advent of a new style of urban planning referred to as the City Beautiful Movement. The movement didn't seek beauty for the sake of beauty, but as a social control devise for creating moral and civic virtue among urban populations. Spectacular structures were designed by some of America's most prominent architects such as; Richard Morris Hunt and Charles McKim. One participating architect,Louis Sullivan, did not agree with the committee's idea and thought that "the fair set the course of American architecture back for half a century from its date, if not longer." His polychrome pronto-modern Transportation building was an exception to the prevailing Beaux-Arts style as he tried to develop an organic American form. Consequently, his was the only building to receive extensive recognition outside of America earning him three prominent architecture awards.
-Map of the fairgrounds which covered over 600 acres
-The horticulture dome
-Court of the Grand Basin

-The Art Palace

One of the greatest, and most financially successful attractions of the fair was the Ferris Wheel. Designed by George Ferris, this magnificent machine measured 264 feet high with 36 cars each accommodating 60 passengers. One car was reserved to carry a band which played tunes while the wheel was in rotation.

Undoubtedly one of the most exciting aspects of the fair was the use of electricity by Westinghouse.

This idealistic "city" however opulent was never intended to be permanent. The facades of the great structures were covered in a material resembling stucco painted white and the interiors were comparable to vast airplane hangers. In fact, only a handful of these impressive buildings remain today. Although most of the fairgrounds were destroyed by a fire, a few of the buildings were saved, restored, and relocated.

-The fairgrounds on fire
The history of the Chicago World's Fair is a truly fascinating story that mirrors issues that America still faces.


  1. Did you finish the book? I vaguely remember us talking about it. I think it's important to point out while they were copying styles from europe (unamerican), the vast scale and the concise designing of the space (city planning) is what was new and important to the future (while like they said, the use of beaux-arts in this process got it stuck in everyone's heads for 50 years!). So it's not important as an architectural movement so much as a city planning movement (which is what we studied it as while in school).

  2. You're absolutely right, Stefan. Regardless of the architectural significance of the fair, the influence on city planning is remarkable.

  3. Great post--I studied the white city in my city planning program. I love the "city beautiful" movement--some things weren't so successful, but I thank Burnham every time I go through Union Station and think fondly!