Commissioned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ crossing of the Atlantic, the World’s Columbian Exposition transformed the modern-day neighborhoods of Jackson Park, Woodlawn, South Shore and Hyde Park into the pearly center of world culture and industry. More than 46 countries and every American state were represented at the fair, which featured a host of mechanical and cultural innovations that shaped the world for the 20th century to come. Take a step back in time and digitally walk the more than 600 acres of Chicago’s famed “White City.”Welcome to the world in 1893: The Administration Building, a 55,000-square-foot, 260-foot-tall domed structure that held the fair organizer’s offices, was usually the first building visitors saw after arriving via the nearby train station and paying their 50-cent entry fee (25 cents for children and free for children under 6).The beaux arts-inspired structure was designed by Solon Spencer Beman, who would go on to design the town of Pullman, now a South Side neighborhood that was deemed a national monument as part of the National Park Service for its role in the development of the U.S.
labor movement and African-American activism. The building housed displays of America’s mineral wealth — Pennsylvania steel and California gold. Imagine rarely using electricity, then showing up to a building full of things running on it: appliances, phonographs, primitive films. The knockout technology on display — and yes, an electric fan was knockout tech in Chicago in the summer of 1893 — made this building one of the fair’s most popular. The glow of the fair’s buildings, illuminated by electric lights at night, awed even those who had grown used to the miracle of modern science. Chicago once had the tallest building in the world in the Sears Tower.
In 1893, at 1,687 by 787 feet, with an exhibit space of over 40 acres, the Manufactures Building meant Chicago could claim the world’s biggest building. It housed any number of exhibits from armaments to mausoleums (and many other things less directly related).A 22,000-pound block of Canadian cheese, tobacco crops and and beer from the Pabst Brewing Co. that would win the fair’s blue ribbon: The Agricultural Building had something for everyone. The 400,000-square-foot structure, adorned with statues of farm animals and the four seasons, housed crops and livestock from around the world. Prominently featured was Cyrus McCormick’s mechanical reaper machine, the innovation in grain harvesting that would launch the McCormick family dynasty, which would eventually own and publish the Chicago Tribune.
Most visitors traveled to the fair by train, but those arriving by boat entered under the Peristyle Gate at the mouth of what is now known as the Jackson Park Outer Harbor. The Music Building lay to the north, and a casino occupied the small building to the south. Statues of great explorers topped the gate, including Columbus riding a chariot. Frequent flyers can thank the World’s Fair for saving their shoe leather in modern airports. A moving sidewalk with lanes on which to both sit or stand was built on a 3,500-foot-long pier jutting into Lake Michigan, where passengers arriving by boat, usually from downtown, would disembark. The sidewalk, which cost 5 cents to ride, was destroyed by fire not long after the fair ended. At the center of the Columbian Exposition Court of Honor, just west of the Peristyle Gate, was the Statue of the Republic, designed by Daniel Chester French. A replica of this statue now stands elsewhere in Jackson Park (a bit later on your tour).
The original was destroyed by fire in 1896. Three caravels, the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, were built in Spain and sailed across the Atlantic unescorted to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in what was then the New World. Crewed by the Spanish navy, the ships arrived in Chicago by way of the St. Lawrence River and sailed into Jackson Park.Arriving by way of the Erie Canal, the Viking, a replica of the viking ship Gokstad, was built in and sailed from Norway. Displayed for decades after the expo in Lincoln Park, the ship eventually fell into disrepair and had to be moved during an expansion of Lincoln Park Zoo.
A private group took up the cause of restoring and caring for the Viking, which now resides in a park in Geneva. A domed structure with eight alcoves, this was the building of the bureaucracies, housing displays from the different corners of American governance like the Departments of State, War, Treasury, Agriculture and the Postal Service. Objects and documents donated by the Smithsonian traced the foundations of American government from Plymouth Rock. There were actual fragments of Plymouth Rock on display.
The smallest of the “great buildings,” the Fisheries Building housed any number of creatures of the deep, including saltwater dwellers that were kept in saltwater brought in from the Atlantic Ocean. The Fine Arts Palace, now the Museum of Science and Industry, is the only building of the White City still standing and functioning today. Neoclassical in styling, it held paintings and sculptures from around the world. After the expo, it remained in operation and housed the collections that would later make up the Field Museum. The building sat vacant when the Field moved to its current home closer to downtown. Eventually, the new museum, one of the largest science museums in the world, would reopen to the public in 1933.Forty-six countries had pavilions at the exposition (47 including Norway’s boat). All American states were represented with their own building, including the then-territories of of Arizona, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Utah.
The Illinois Building sported an enormous topographical map of the state with a scale of 2 miles to an inch and featured exhibitions of Illinois women. The Illinois, a full-scale mockup of some of America’s new steel hulled class of battleships, was moored off the pier jutting into Lake Michigan. Designed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained architect Sophia Hayden, the Women’s Building highlighted works of female artists and the philanthropic works of American women like Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale. While women were certainly celebrated at the 1893 fair, they wouldn’t receive the right to vote for another 27 years. Built with glass-domed roofs, the Horticulture Building housed exhibitions of plants and flowers from around the world. Cacti, mosses, palm trees and orchids and even California oranges in the shape of the Liberty Bell shared greenhouse space.
There were railroads, steam engines and even some pack mules on display at the Transportation Building, but possibly the most popular means of transport in the hall would have been the “safety” bicycle. Called “safeties” because they were safer than big-wheeled penny farthings, the new chain-powered gadgets, complete with gears and pneumatic tires, sparked a “bike boom” throughout the United States. Spain’s Santa Maria ship was docked outside the building for much of the fair.As the White City was being built, Chicago’s first “L” train began running from 39th Street on the South Side to Congress Parkway in June 1892.
The line was eventually extended south to 63rd Street, and then extended again to run east from Englewood to Jackson Park, opening in time to deliver visitors to the fair. One of the largest buildings in the fair, Machinery Hall featured humankind’s biggest mechanical achievements of time. Industrial water pumps, steam engines, propellers and electrical generators, common technology now, stood out as triumphs of the recent Industrial Revolution in Britain and the United States. A smaller-scale bronze replica of The State of the Republic, known to many as “The Golden Lady,” now stands in Jackson Park, cast in 1918 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Columbian Exposition.
The milelong Midway Plaisance stretched from the White City and Stony Island Avenue in Jackson Park, past the University of Chicago to Washington Park. Dotted with restaurants and exhibitions from around the world, fairgoers could grab a German beer or visit “Cairo Street” and the mysterious, and slightly scandalous for the age, belly dancers. Foot and buggy traffic has been replaced with cars, but the strip of public space between the two parks still exists today, one of the many long public parks that contribute to Chicago’s official motto — urbs in horto — or “city in a garden.” The moniker “Monsters of the Midway” was first applied to the University of Chicago football team, whose stadium sat just north of the Midway, before being repurposed for the fearsome Bears defense of the 1980s.Designed by George Ferris Jr., the world’s first Ferris wheel, at the time known as “the Chicago Wheel,” was born smack dab in the middle of Chicago’s Midway. Two hundred and four feet tall with 36 wooden passenger cars, it was designed as America’s answer to the Eiffel Tower, which had been constructed for the 1889 Paris Exposition. At the time, two trips around the wheel cost 50 cents, and visitors couldn’t help but remark that its spoked design bore a resemblance to the new make of bicycles being ogled in the Transportation Building.
Eventually, the wheel was deconstructed and rebuilt in Lincoln Park before being shipped south to St. Louis’ World’s Fair in 1904, after which it was destroyed. After the close of the exposition, the Midway was returned to the public as open green space. Over time, the University of Chicago expanded across the Midway, occupying spaces both to the its north and south. Soccer fields, a skating rink and other sports facilities are the minor constructions that break up the green ground.Once a ghoulish footnote in the history of the World’s Columbian Exposition, the story of serial killer H.H. Holmes has now become as synonymous with the fair as the Ferris wheel, in large part due to the success of the nonfiction book “Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson, which is scheduled to be adapted into a Hollywood film.
Holmes, a con man, built and operated a hotel and commercial building specifically to facilitate the murder of dozens of people, including children. The building featured a soundproof vault, “hanging room” and a high-temperature brick oven in the basement, along with the facilities to break down the bodies of his victims. In all, Holmes confessed to 27 murders, not all of which could be confirmed, though some suspect the number of total victims over his life may be higher. He was executed in 1896. After it was uncovered, the “murder castle,” as it became known, served several other purposes before it was razed to make way for a new post office in 1938.