White City

Most cities are, to a greater or lesser degree, products of their geography, but in Chicago’s case it is even more pronounced. In the late seventeenth century, the French explorer Louis Joliet noted that the spot where the city now stands was the shortest portage between the watersheds of two great rivers: the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi. Native Americans, of course, had long recognized this and used this route. The South Branch of the Chicago River is just a few miles from the Des Plaines River, a tributary of the Illinois River, itself a tributary of the Mississippi. The land itself is low and marshy. Decades later, a trading post was established at this location by Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a farmer and entrepreneur of mixed French and Haitian ancestry. In 1803, the U.S. government fortified the post and named it Fort Dearborn. It was the site of a terrible massacre in the War of 1812. Its future didn’t look particularly promising, but then events hundreds of miles to the east would create the impetus to take this strategically significant spot and transform it from a muddy, isolated outpost into a front-rank New World metropolis.

The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, was the greatest American engineering achievement of its time. The vision and money to make this a reality came from New York, whose leaders recognized that by connecting Lake Erie to the Hudson River, New York could siphon off the commerce that would inevitably have been centered in New Orleans. The Crescent City was ideally suited by geography to become the great metropolis of North America, but it wasn’t to be. New Yorkers exploited the economic opportunities of the Upper Great Lakes for themselves. Buffalo, at the western terminus of the canal on Lake Erie, was the first settlement to boom. But the unimpressive, underdeveloped site at the mouth of the Chicago River on Lake Michigan soon attracted even greater attention in the east. If a canal could be completed across the valleys and through the mountains of upstate New York, why not a canal connecting the Chicago River and the Des Plaines? Once completed, a project such as this would allow New York commerce to penetrate into the very heartland of the Mississippi Valley, and compete with the merchants of St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans in their home markets. It was audacious. It was thrusting. It was fabulously successful.

From its earliest origins as a recognizable American city (shortly before incorporating itself in 1833), Chicago was to a certain extent a creation of New York. Many a New Yorker, as well as a fair showing of New Englanders, came west and speculated in Chicago real estate. It was a good bet. To say that Chicago was a “colony” of New York would, perhaps, be stretching the evidence. However, it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate, either. With New York money underwriting its development, the city by the lake took hold and thrived. Its first mayor was New Yorker turned real estate mogul, William B. Ogden. Within a matter of a few decades, it had become one of the largest cities in the Western Hemisphere. The famous fire in 1871, which laid the city flat, in fact allowed for a rebuilding on an even grander scale. Architects of great talent were drawn to this seeming tabula rasa to design a modern city, with modern buildings. The skyscraper was born.

But this growth had a cost: pollution, noise, unsafe streets and transit, and glaring socioeconomic inequalities between native-born and immigrant, black and white. The infamous Haymarket Bombing of 1886 had shaken the city to its core. Real fear of an anarchist revolution triggered an ugly, reflexive backlash against political radicals and the foreign-born. There was a sense that Chicago was careening out of control toward the twentieth century. Both utopian socialists and utopian capitalists earnestly tried to find solutions to the myriad ills affecting their society. A yearning to create a model of the possible was—at least partly—one of the main motivations behind the proposal for a World’s Fair to be held in Chicago in 1892. Ostensibly, the fair would commemorate four hundred years since Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the New World in 1492. In reality, the more urgent present was what occupied people’s minds. In the event it wasn’t until 1893—a year that would signal the beginning of a serious economic downturn in the country—that the World’s Fair opened its gates to the public.


The fairgrounds largely reflected the genius of architect and urban designer, Daniel Burnham, and the venerable urban landscape artist, Frederick Law Olmsted. The location of the grounds was situated in the southern part of the city along the lakefront at Jackson Park, with its central Court of Honor constructed around a lagoon-like “Grand Basin,” adding a water theme to the experience of millions of fairgoers. The buildings and statuary were made to be temporary—a vision of what could be, but not a reflection of what was. Burnham, influenced by the neoclassical style in vogue in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, emphasized a brilliant white façade for the exterior of the fair. Inside its various halls and buildings, however, the most modern technologies and forward-looking innovations were on display for an optimistic and curious public. The exhibits within the Electricity Building in particular vividly demonstrated the wonders of this new god-like power source with men like Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla personally involved. The world was changing, fast. The neoclassical style gave people the illusion of an ennobling continuity with the past and tradition. At the same time, their world was being altered in ways that were both exciting and unnerving. And it was clean, safe, and free of the incessant racket of daily life in downtown Chicago, just a few miles away. The “White City” provided both a model and an illusion. People wanted to believe it was the way of the future, while being willfully blind to the deeper societal ills that produced that which they feared. At this time there was a real belief in the efficacy of intelligently designed buildings, parks, and esplanades to shape people’s behavior. As historian Donald L. Miller has emphasized, many at the time possessed “a deep faith in the transforming power of good surroundings” and saw Burnham’s efforts as “an antidote to social disorder.”1 This was important, if naïve. It was also important that the fair was held where it was held—in the country’s interior.

The 1893 World’s Fair & Columbian Exposition held in Chicago was the city’s first attempt at welcoming the rest of America and the world to the shores of Lake Michigan. For better or worse, it established the aesthetic sensibility of the era with its vision of neoclassical architecture spearheading urban design (in the process, it set back modern, progressive styles for decades, according to architects such as Louis Sullivan). Be that as it may, this fair defined an age and inspired an entire generation to think on a grand scale of what might be. Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel, Looking Backward, published five years before the fair, had motivated many across the country to aspire to a better world—one in unmistakable contrast to the Dickensian realities one faced in almost any city of any size at that time: polluted water and air, homeless children, dangerous labor agitation, and cruel suppression of the same by rich capitalists. The fair’s White City offered the millions that entered its stucco mirage a glimpse of the type of society envisioned by Bellamy. Its mix of the cosmopolitan, the genteel, and the salacious would also inspire emulation.

To be sure, Chicago’s 1893 Fair wasn’t the first world’s fair to capture the public’s attention on a grand scale: the fairs in London in 1851, Philadelphia in 1876, and, perhaps most famously, Paris in 1889, inspired millions of people. The nineteenth century had proven to be a time of unparalleled, substantial, and often intimate change. Someone born in Europe in 1800 grew to adulthood in a world that had more in common with the ancient Greeks and Romans than with the world he would live in just a few short decades later, in middle age. The world was also becoming a smaller place. The process, started by the very person the 1893 Chicago Fair was memorializing, had accelerated with the advent of steamships and transoceanic telegraph cables. Imperialism—now an ugly word—was then all the rage, as the more technologically advanced countries imposed their will on the less technologically advanced. Exoticism was the inevitable companion of the imperialist impulse as the world shrank and the “Other” became objects of curiosity and, unfortunately, derision. Exhibits such as “Eskimo Village” and “Dahomey” objectified the Other for the mostly white fairgoers. The line between cultural enlightenment and leering exploitation was blurred by fairs like those in Paris or Chicago. People wanted to be ennobled, but they also wanted to be titillated, and ultimately to have their own sense of superiority confirmed.

Daniel Burnham enlisted a youthful entertainment entrepreneur, Sol Bloom, to oversee the Midway Plaisance exhibits and attractions. Eventually shortened in the popular lexicon to the “Midway,” this pedestrian thoroughfare connecting Washington Park to the west with Jackson Park and the lakefront to the east, provided fairgoers with a less rarefied experience than the White City beyond. Part carnival, part cultural exhibit, the Midway brought together the furtive, if not sleazy, sideshow experience and mixed it with exhibits from institutions as reputable as Harvard University and the Smithsonian. It was a roaring success. Fairgoers longed for the rarefied air of the Court of Honor, but after a certain point they found they couldn’t breathe. The Midway allowed them to let their hair down and have some fun. Shocked, conned, and, yes, perhaps enlightened, denizens of the Midway raved about the experience. Sol Bloom’s “Street in Cairo” introduced Americans to the “belly dance,” and a stein of the Pabst Brewing Company’s freshly awarded blue ribbon–winning pilsner let them take the edge off a long afternoon. In retrospect, this Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect of the 1893 Fair was clearly a crucial component in its overwhelming success. The high and the low; the genteel and the demi-monde maintained a sort of equilibrium that summer, which made it all work. In the end, it was estimated that over 27 million people crowded the fairgrounds in Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance.* One of them was eleven-year-old Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The scion of the colossally wealthy Hyde Park Roosevelt and Delano clans, young Franklin traveled to the fair in his family’s own private railway car.2 Chicago in the summer and fall of 1893 was simply the place to be.


Visitors look down at the centrally located pool in the White City (1893). Alamy Images.

Another person attending the fair had taken a different path to see its wonders close up. In the middle of an economic depression that had gripped the country starting in early 1893, Elias Disney gained employment as part of the veritable army of laborers and skilled craftsmen hired by Daniel Burnham to complete the vast civic undertaking in time for its May Day opening. Disney was fortunate to find work as a carpenter at the fair site erecting the awe-inspiring—albeit temporary—structures of the White City. He would share stories of what he considered to be one of the great privileges of his life3 with his four sons, including the youngest, Walter, or “Walt.” The seeds of both the “Rainbow City” of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, and of Walt Disney’s “Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow” in Orlando, Florida, were sown here.

Mindful of the great success of Gustav Eiffel’s tower at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, the 1893 Chicago Fair’s organizers looked to engineer George Ferris to design an attraction that would bring visitors into the skies at a height, and in a way, they never would have previously experienced. His giant “Wheel” did just that. Taking fair visitors 264 feet into the sky at its apex (this height—over twenty stories in diameter—greatly exceeds most contemporary Ferris wheels), the attraction was a sensation. The enclosed, rotating platforms held up to sixty people at a time.4 The view was spectacular, indeed unlike any vista most paying customers had ever beheld: the blue of the lake, the glaring white of the fair, and the dingy, gray throb of modern Chicago with its decidedly un-classical buildings crowded in the Loop,* reaching skyward. In a larger context, this desire to rise to giddy heights anticipated the age of flight.

The Wheel was firmly affixed to the ground, but balloons straining at their tethers along the Midway offered the adventurous the ability to truly break free from earthly constraints. A ride in a “balloon” was a first-rate thrill. The ability to rise and descend had been mastered for some time by the late nineteenth century, but horizontal motion was essentially at the whim of the elements. To say this was controlled flight was pushing the definition of the term. This uncertainty about where one would end up increased the thrill. French author Jules Verne had previously mined this material in his novel The Mysterious Island, whose plot revolves around a group of marooned passengers aboard a balloon gone astray. Later L. Frank Baum transformed a wayward balloonist into the “great and powerful” Wizard of Oz inhabiting a wondrous “Emerald City.” His departure from the Emerald City is also in a balloon, borne away by natural forces not fully within his control. But what if one could ascend into the skies and control the direction of one’s “airship”? Yes, what if?

To try and answer this question, pioneering French American engineer Octave Chanute—then collecting and disseminating information on gliders, in particular—assembled the first International Conference on Aerial Navigation, to be held in his hometown of Chicago. This meeting of aerial enthusiasts at the 1893 World’s Fair established a mechanism for a collective effort to achieve powered flight sooner rather than later. With an eye toward sharing what was known at that time, Chanute wrote Progress in Flying Machines. Published in 1894, it would become a go-to guide for would-be aeronauts (including Wilbur and Orville Wright). And throughout the 1890s, Chanute and his team worked to perfect a glider among the windswept sand dunes of Lake Michigan’s south shore. After much trial and error, they tasted success. Chanute’s boxy wing design with both vertical and diagonal trusses became the basis for the design later adopted, and refined, by the Wright brothers.

By the end of the decade, intrepid inventor-aeronauts on both sides of the Atlantic had begun to make the technological leaps that would enable true controlled flight. First in Paris, as Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont pioneered the use of a powered “lighter than air” ship. Then in Germany, with Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s more ambitious airship. And, finally, with the Wright brothers’ successful experiments with heavier-than-air flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903.


“Captive” balloon and the Ferris wheel at the World’s Columbian Exposition, photographed by Charles Dudley Arnold (1893).

The World’s Fair ended in the autumn of 1893. Within weeks the grand, abandoned halls of the White City had become home to a large population of homeless men, squatting along the lakeshore looking for any shelter they could find. The economic depression worsened; the carefree joys of summer replaced by the grim realities of capitalism’s latest catastrophic failure. Unsurprisingly, fire eventually engulfed what remained of Chicago’s beautiful mirage, sparing the city the expense of having to formally dismantle it. It would be another forty years before Chicago rose again to welcome the world.


* Fourteen million of them came from abroad. This is all the more impressive when one considers that Chicago was located deep in the interior of the North American continent, and to reach it required a long journey by rail after a long journey by sea.

* Chicago’s congested downtown business district.

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