The Court of Honor, inside the world's fairgrounds. (Image GN90799d courtesy Field Museum)

The 1893 Columbian Exposition: Remembering Chicago’s White City

Chicago was a young and wild city when it hosted the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Discover how traces of the magnificent White City and its treasures are still visible around Chicagoland.

The Court of Honor, inside the world’s fairgrounds. (Image GN90799d courtesy Field Museum)

The White City glimmered in the warm summer sun. The Court of Honor, with its many fountains and rippling lagoons, was anchored by opulent, whitewashed palaces that reflected the most classic facades of Europe. Inside those palaces lay hundreds of new technologies, anthropological treasures and artistic symbols celebrating human progress.

And to think that just a few years earlier, this had been a swampy, desolate place, an untamed wilderness along Lake Michigan, inside a city exploding with growth after the Great Fire 20 years earlier.

The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, declared by its contemporary critics to be the most magical and opulent fair to date, would become a charred wasteland just a few months after closing. Nearly 120 years later, the sandy shores and quiet grounds of Jackson Park bear little resemblance to the magnificent White City, but echoes remain. Many of the fair’s state-of-the-art technologies are still with us, and its architectural wonders are still known throughout the region. The memory of that magical summer still beckons.

Visions of Splendor

The Museum of Science and Industry and the Art Institute of Chicago weren’t always what they are today. Both are housed in buildings constructed for the 1893 world’s fair. What’s now the art museum downtown started as a home for lectures and international scholars. The science museum, on the other hand, first was an art museum. Located at the northern end of Jackson Park, the Palace of Fine Arts once held valuable artwork from around the world. Still located in their original places, both buildings have undergone extensive renovations.

Sadly, few buildings were made to last. The magnificent facades were built from wood and steel frames. These grand exteriors, inspired by European architecture and a contemporary Beaux Arts-inspired panache, were only for looks. They were covered in staff, a stucco-like combination of plaster and jute fiber, and painted a gleaming white.

When it was fresh and new, the White City was a piece of artwork. Designed by top architects from the East Coast and Chicago, the grand facades included tall columns, intricate ornaments, giant domes and massive sculptures. Their brilliant, whitewashed color earned the nickname “The White City,” a contrast to dirty, industrial Chicago, the “Black City.”

In only a few years, Jackson Park was transformed, and at its focal point stood the majestic Court of Honor. Anchored by five major exhibit halls, the court included a columned peristyle (colonnade) lining the lake, with giant statues and fountains celebrating Christopher Columbus. A gilded statue of a woman, her arms raised, looked over the court. Its base stood 40 feet high; the statue itself was 65 feet tall.

The park’s 686 acres included many exhibit halls highlighting American and international culture. On the Midway Plaisance, stretching west toward Washington Park, an array of internationally themed food stands and entertainment spots featured wild new attractions. In “Streets of Cairo,” for example, men ogled belly dancers performing the “hoochy coochy.”

If it was all too grand, that was the intention. Grandeur was the objective, ever since the U.S. announced in 1889 that it would host a world’s fair to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the New World. When France hosted its Exposition Universelle in Paris, in 1889, the event’s ultramodern steel-and-glass exhibit halls and symbolic Eiffel Tower sparked international jealousy. To prove America’s place on the world stage, fair organizers sought to one-up the Parisians.

But Chicago was an unlikely location. Although it had become the nation’s second-largest city, it was a metropolis built on industry, by names like McCormick, Pullman, and Field. It was a dirty, workingman’s city, a place that East Coast elites considered uncultured and lacking sophistication.

Determined to land the fair, a Chicago committee raised $5 million in stock to fund construction, and rallied Congress to approve their city over New York, Washington and St. Louis. Chicago’s lobbying effort was so thorough that a New York columnist dubbed it the “Windy City.”

No Small Plans

Today, a new exhibit at the Elmhurst Historical Museum, 120 E. Park Ave., in Elmhurst, shows a local angle on the Columbian Exposition. Thomas Barbour Bryan, the man regarded as the father of Elmhurst, was tasked with persuading Chicago city leaders and international figures to support the fair.

The exhibit tells the story of Bryan and other Elmhurst residents who enjoyed the fair. It’s done in conjunction with a national traveling exhibit that describes all of America’s world’s fairs, from New York in 1853 to Knoxville, Tenn., in 1982. Open through Jan. 6, the exhibit has drawn many visitors, some of whom recall visiting Chicago’s other world’s fair.

Patrice Roche, the museum’s marketing and communications specialist, marvels at what she’s discovered.
“One of the big things I’ve learned is that American and international fairs were these huge investments and showcases that drew millions of visitors from around the world,” she says. “It’s probably comparable to what we see at the Olympics today.”

When Chicago won its bid to host the World’s Columbian Exposition, architects Daniel Burnham and partner John Root, well-known for the downtown skyscrapers they had designed, were chosen to oversee the project. To help with planning and landscaping, the pair hired Frederick Law Olmstead, a landscape architect who planned both New York’s Central Park and suburban Riverside, Ill.
Burnham would one day be quoted saying, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” His plan for the world’s fair was anything but small.

The centerpiece was the Court of Honor, with grand halls, statues and lagoons, through which Venetian canal boats traveled around the fairgrounds. Around the court stood exhibit halls that celebrated agriculture, machinery, electricity and mining. Nearby buildings housed exhibits that honored transportation, horticulture, fine arts, American states and nations abroad. The grandest of them all was the Manufactures and Liberal Arts building, which filled 1.3 million square feet under one roof. The single-span building, supported by a steel frame, was larger than anything from the Paris exposition.

Technological Triumphs

The legends were true – Captain Magnus Anderson knew it. Just a few years before the Columbian Exposition, a farmer in Norway had discovered in his field the Gokstad, a buried Viking ship. To prove the old legends that Leif Erikson really had reached the New World before Columbus, Anderson built a replica of the Gokstad, and with a crew of 11, sailed the Atlantic. In July 1893, sailors amazed crowds by triumphantly sailing into the world’s fair, their ship intact, their crew safe. Like so many other things at this fair, it was a major triumph.

Spray painting was invented as a way to quickly paint the White City. New foods debuted, including shredded wheat, Cracker Jacks, Cream of Wheat and Pabst Blue Ribbon (according to legend, so named for an award it won at the fair). The movable sidewalk, today a staple at airports, made its first appearance on the south pier.

A giant telescope on display would four years later anchor the Yerkes Observatory, a University of Chicago astronomical outpost in Williams Bay, Wis. The telescope’s two optically perfect glass disks made it the world’s largest refractor telescope when it was displayed at the Manufactures & Liberal Arts building.

Adding to the wonder, the fair was entirely lit and powered by George Westinghouse’s system of alternating current power. The White City glowed at night, lit by thousands of incandescent electric bulbs. Few buildings shined as brilliantly as the Administration Building, at the center of the Court of Honor. Both Nikola Tesla, who developed alternating current technology, and Thomas Edison, who championed direct current technology, displayed their devices.

The Palace of Fine Arts housed precious artwork from around the world. Today, it’s the Museum of Science and Industry. (Image GN90799d courtesy Field Museum)
The Palace of Fine Arts housed precious artwork from around the world. Today, it’s the Museum of Science and Industry. (Image GN90799d courtesy Field Museum)

That electricity also enabled George W.G. Ferris’ giant spinning wheel, a bold amusement attraction that became the Columbian Exposition’s Eiffel Tower. Located in the center of the Midway, the wheel stood more than 250 feet tall and could hold more than 2,000 people in its 36 railroad car-sized cabins.

While many visitors thought the giant contraption of thin steel wires looked unsafe, it was surprisingly sturdy. It withstood a strong summer storm, and years later, when it was torn down, even dynamite could barely finish it off. Still, some passengers were edgy. Erik Larson describes one scene in his historical nonfiction book about the fair, Devil in the White City:

“[The passenger] began throwing himself at the walls of the car with such power that he managed to bend some of the protective iron. The conductor and several male passengers tried to subdue him, but he shook them off and raced for the door.”

Collectible Remnants

America’s first commemorative postage stamps were issued during the fair, but Ken Srail didn’t realize that as a kid collecting stamps. He thought they looked cool. As a teenager, he searched flea markets and antique shows for Columbian Exposition memorabilia. Today, the professional stamp dealer, based in Cleveland, maintains a unique collection of artifacts. He has a hand-painted piano that was displayed in the California building. He has a rare engraved Ferris Wheel souvenir and world’s fair stock certificates. And, he has a set of hand-painted Bohemian glasses.

“This was part of the Bohemian Glass exhibit in the Manufactures & Liberal Arts building at the fair,” he says. “They show beautiful workmanship with applied gold lattice work and hand-painted floral designs.”

Exhibits were arranged by the Smithsonian Institute’s George B. Goode, who sought more than just machinery. Native American and anthropological treasures told the story of American and world history. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West offered visitors a dramatized version of the American plains. The Women’s Building celebrated women’s progress.

By the time the fair ended, on Oct. 31, 1893, nearly 27.5 million visitors had passed through the gates, nearly 700,000 of them on the most popular day. By October, nearly 20,000 people a day were riding the Ferris Wheel. But the final days of the Columbian Exposition were shadowed by gloom, when Chicago’s mayor, Carter Harrison, was killed at home by a deranged office-seeker.


A replica of that gilded woman, the Statue of the Grand Republic, still stands in Jackson Park, extending its arms over what was the Court of Honor, though today it’s located a little west. The original statue was destroyed a few months after the world’s fair, when a giant blaze claimed many buildings. Today, the Midway is large and vacant, save for a University of Chicago building that stands where the Ferris Wheel once spun.

At the Elmhurst Historical Museum, visitors can see some of the unique memorabilia collected by local residents. There’s a display from Caroline Wade, an Elmhurst painter who taught at the Art Institute. She painted a mural for the Women’s Building, and had work displayed at the Palace of Fine Arts. There’s also an assortment of collectibles, from glassware saved by the family of Elmhurst’s first mayor, to postcards and a salt dish made of shells, resembling the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria.

“People were very enthusiastic about saving fair mementos, making scrapbooks and collectiong coins – souvenirs were a big part of the experience,” says Roche. “It was a big deal to go to a fair.”

The world’s fair was so important that it’s left a lasting impact on our modern culture.

“The huge attendance and extensive foreign participation resulted in a technical exchange never seen before,” says Srail, the collector. “Many forthcoming inventions were the direct result of ideas gained from new products or technologies seen at the fair. Never before had so many experts from so many fields come together in a single location.”

Locally, the White City inspired Chicago’s love affair with architecture. Burnham’s once-mighty Rookery and Monadnock still stand, dwarfed by modern skyscrapers. The works of Louis Sullivan, whose Transportation Building at the fair drew fans and critics, still stand. His protégé, Frank Lloyd Wright, then a young architect, is believed to have found inspiration in the fair’s Japanese exhibits.

In designing the White City, Burnham himself discovered a love for urban planning. In 1901, he helped Washington to realize the master plan created almost a century earlier by Pierre L’Enfant. In 1909, Burnham developed Chicago’s Burnham Plan, a blueprint for generous lakefront parks, a highway system and planned communities with parkland.

The fair made such an impact that it was immortalized as one of the four stars on Chicago’s municipal flag. Through its signature hard work and ingenuity, Chicago had proven itself before a national and international crowd.

The giant Ferris Wheel debuted at the Columbian Exposition, as America’s answer to the Eiffel Tower. Situated along the Midway, the wheel stood more than 250 feet tall. At right, a reproduction of the gilded Statue of the Grand Republic. (Image GN90799d courtesy Field Museum)
The giant Ferris Wheel debuted at the Columbian Exposition, as America’s answer to the Eiffel Tower. Situated along the Midway, the wheel stood more than 250 feet tall. At right, a reproduction of the gilded Statue of the Grand Republic. (Image GN90799d courtesy Field Museum)

There would be another world’s fair in Chicago, some 40 years later. Where the Columbian Exposition was grand and classic, the 1933-34 Century of Progress was sleek and modern. Set on what is now Northerly Island and the Museum Campus, the fair was filled with bright colors, art deco inspiration and a wealth of scientific and cultural displays. Nearly 40 million visitors came during the fair’s two years of operation.

In more recent years, Chicagoans have found a renewed interest in the Columbian Exposition, thanks largely to Larson’s Devil in the White City. The author based his story on historical research found at the Chicago Historical Museum and the Art Institute.

Elmhurst’s Roche is amazed at what she’s discovered about the fair. In her mind, the Columbian Exposition still holds lessons for today.

“We accomplished all of this years ago, in the wake of the Chicago Fire, and we couldn’t get the Olympics today?” she laughs. “These people thought big – you know Daniel Burnham’s ‘no little plans’ quote. This was beyond the scope of their own world, and it really impacted Chicago history.”

What’s Left of the Columbian Exposition?

Much of the White City was destroyed by fires in the year after its closing. But reminders are still around Chicagoland and the Midwest today. Here are a few you can visit:

Museum of Science and Industry: Originally the Palace of Fine Arts, this building re-opened in 1894 as the Field Columbian Museum, to hold artifacts from the fair. When the Field Museum moved to Grant Park in 1921, the building sat vacant until a gift from Sears CEO Julius Rosenwald funded major renovations and a hands-on museum dedicated to science. It opened in 1933 during the city’s next world’s fair.

Art Institute of Chicago: The Art Institute’s current building, near Grant Park, was built as a meeting place for international scholars and lecturers during the world’s fair. After the fair, the museum occupied the building, for which it had paid half of the construction costs.

Yerkes Observatory: This astronomical outpost for the University of Chicago features what was the world’s largest lens-type telescope when it was displayed at the world’s fair.

The Viking Ship: A dozen Norwegians sailed this Viking ship replica across the ocean, through the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes, into Chicago. It sat outside the Fine Arts Palace and in Lincoln Park for about 100 years, until it made its way to suburban Geneva, where it’s now occasionally open to the public.

Little Norway: The signature piece at this cultural museum in Blue Mounds, Wis., was the Norway building at the world’s fair. Built in Norway and transported to Chicago, it was a recreation of a Norwegian chapel.

Statue of the Grand Republic: Daniel Chester French, the same artist who designed the Lincoln Memorial figure, created this gilded reproduction for the fair’s 25th anniversary. It stands in Jackson Park today, a few hundred feet west of the original court.

Century of Progress

Chicago’s next world’s fair, hosted in 1933 and ’34, was far different from the Columbian Exposition. The Century of Progress was no city of white – rather, it was colorful, sleek and modern. Set amid the Great Depression, the fair celebrated science, technology and commerce in buildings sponsored by corporations including General Motors, Chrysler, Havoline and Sears Roebuck. Model homes displayed building materials and appliances of the future, such as air conditioning. The Skyride carried passengers in a rocket car 219 feet into the air.

It was held along Lake Michigan, on what is now the Museum Campus and Northerly Island Park. It stretched from Grant Park to around what is now McCormick Place, along parkland preserved by the Burnham Plan.

The fair first ran from May through November 1933, but it was so popular that it opened again the following year. By its close in October 1934, nearly 40 million visitors had seen Chicago’s most colorful fair.