World’s fairs were big business in the U.S. from thelate 19th century into the 20th century. They offered the host city prestige, an influx of commercial activity over an extended period of time, and some lasting pieces of architecture, landscape architecture, and infrastructure.
The World’s Columbian Exposition (aka Chicago World’s Fair) transformed Chicago’s lakefront for six months in 1893 and welcomed 27 million Americans and foreign nationals—the equivalent of a quarter of the U.S. population at the time. Some political scientists have pointed to this moment as the birth of American Exceptionalism. Some popular historians, no more modestly, have called it the birth of the “the American century.”
Architectural historians generally accept those arguments in their narrative of fin de siècle America. Within their purview, the Chicago World’s Fair codified Beaux-Arts Neo-Classical architecture and city planning for at least three generations of architects. The so-called City Beautiful Movement evolved in other cities, certainly, but its most famous expression centers on Chicago’s rebirth after the Great Fire of 1871.
On the surface, the fair celebrated Christopher Columbus’s arrival in North America in 1492. Across 600 acres, the buildings and sculptures of the White City—in some cases, only nominally—referenced the Genoese explorer. Like other nationalist expressions, however, the past was referenced as prologue. The European “discovery” of a new world served as a pretext to this far better, fully modern one. Burnham and Root principal Daniel Burnham (of “Make no little plans” fame) organized a cadre of architects to design exhibit houses under the umbrella of science, industry, and art—that perfect Gilded Age triad that drew together new taxonomies, steely mechanization, and everyday craft-ways and culture.
Fairgoers reveled in performances by a young Scott Joplin and live electricity demonstrations by Nikola Tesla. They also perceived Burnham’s overall architectural logic for the fair, which unified the messy and seemingly random demonstrations of science, industry, and art: Classical proportions for all the major fair buildings, sheathed in plaster of Paris and painted chalk white.
And it truly appeared as a White City: Richard Morris Hunt’s central Administration Building; McKim, Mead & White’s Agriculture Building; Van Brunt & Howe’s Electricity Building; Henry Ives Cobb’s Fisheries Building; Peabody & Stearns’s Machinery Hall; Solon Beman’s Mines and Mining Building—all conformed to the fair’s stylistic palette, as did sculptures by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Frederick MacMonnies, and Daniel Chester French.
But it wasn’t all aesthetic jingoism.
Among the big architect-driven buildings within the main fairgrounds, Adler & Sullivan’s infamous Transportation Building broke from its neighbors with brown, coral, emerald, and maroon tones in a form that was part Moorish souk and part industrial shed. The World’s Columbian Exposition also hosted 46 nations, and fairgoers visited a full-scale Ho-o-Den Temple replica constructed by Japanese craftsmen, a 22,000-pound “monster cheese” shipped by barge from Canada, and what Louis Sullivan called an “Egyptoid” cigarette booth set up by a Cairo merchant. Fairgoers found an even greater contrast to the sanctioned sectors of culture and industry in the Midway Plaisance, with woolly and exotic sights like belly dancers, fire-breathers, and the original Ferris wheel.
Physically, the fair lives on as a pair of ghost footprints in Frederick Law Olmsted and Burnham’s master plans for both Jackson Park and the Midway. Symbolically, the fair lives on as one of the four stars of the Chicago municipal flag (the other three symbolizing the Great Fire of 1871, Fort Dearborn, and the 1933–34 Century of Progress Exposition).
Architecturally, on the other hand, not much survives besides Charles Atwood’s Palace of Fine Arts and Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge’s World’s Congress Auxiliary Building (now the Art Institute of Chicago).
Then again, not much was supposed to have survived—plaster and stucco fairs like that were meant to come and go. Instead, organizers in the early 1890s had other goals in mind: Give 27 million attendees an experience and move Chicago out onto a world stage—where it remains today when 30,000 AIA National Convention attendees converge on the Windy City.