The "White City" at night

The World’s Columbian Exposition – Aka the Chicago World’s Fair, the Chicago Columbian Exposition, and the White City

 Here is the second installment in a series of posts on world’s fairs and world’s expositions that will run periodically on Insights. The first installment, published here on October 4, featured the Great Exhibition of the Works of All Nations, or The Great Exhibition, which took place in London in 1851.

Willwork, Inc. Exhibit & Event Services is a national leader in exhibition services and event project management.

We operate offices in major cities across the country, and work in those cities, and other metropolises, as well as towns, villages, and hamlets – anywhere premium exhibition services and event project management are needed.

As we have described and presented in this space, Willwork, Inc. Exhibit & Event Services – by virtue of the business we are in, and the skills, talents, and focus of our people – admires and is a fan of beautiful and ingenious architecture and design.

We are enthusiasts of the exceptional in building and space planning.

Indeed, and of this we are ever mindful, the place called North Easton Village – contained within the incorporated town of Easton, MA, the community in metropolitan Boston where Willwork’s headquarters are located – holds a trove of architecture and design that rivals any place of comparable geographic size in America.

Please click here to be taken to a Willwork Insights post, published on June 12, 2014, which discusses the works, found in North Easton Village, of Gilded Age luminaries Henry Hobson (H.H.) Richardson, Frederick Law Olmsted – aka F.L. Olmsted and F.L.O., Augustus Saint-GaudensStanford White, and John La Farge.

Not mentioned in that post is a beautiful plate of decorative glass designed by another iconic Gilded Age artisan, the painter and glassmaker, Louis Comfort Tiffany. This glass is set above a sandstone fireplace designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens that is within the Ames Gate Lodge, one of the H.H. Richardson buildings in North Easton Village.

In mid-December of last year, Willwork held its year-end management meeting in North Easton Village, in a grand stone cottage called Queset House, built in 1854 from a design that was provided by Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852), a pioneer in American landscape architecture and an author, botanist, and building architect.

Mr. Downing greatly influenced Frederick Law Olmsted, widely hailed as “The Father of American Landscape Architecture,” and a planner of the Queset House grounds.

From Queset House one can see Ames Free Library and Oakes Ames Memorial Hall, both designed by H.H. Richardson with landscapes designed by F.L.O.

As an exhibition services and event project management company – and one that is a fan and enthusiast of architecture, design, and building and space planning – it is wholly appropriate and fitting we discuss and talk about exhibitions and expositions.

In this post, we take a look at a magnificent and extraordinary exposition, one with which Willwork shares a cosmic and cultural connection.

We are talking about an exposition for the ages, one that was realized through an epic marriage and cooperation of money, politics, industry, brilliant architects and designers and artisans, detailed and precise and excellent planning and logistics, legions of skilled laborers and tradespeople – and the ambition and ascendance of a republic.

We refer to the World’s Columbian Exposition, a world’s fair in held in Chicago in 1893.

Actually, World’s Columbian Exposition was the short-form of the official name for the event: World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition.

Other names by which the exposition is known are The Chicago World’s Fair, Chicago Columbian Exposition and, for reasons explained and expounded on further down … The White City.

The Chicago World’s Fair celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus, and Europe, discovering the New World.

Dedication of exposition took place on October 21, 1892, but the fairgrounds did not open to the public until May 1, 1893, and would run until October 30 of that year.

Other world’s fairs had been held in the U.S. prior to the World’s Columbian Exposition, but the event and production in Chicago in 1893 was much larger and much more involved in scope than those which had preceded it.

It was a transcendent episode in American history.

Over its six-month run, the Chicago World’s Fair registered 27 million visits.

It was a world’s fair that was fully representative of, and which fully exemplified, the Gilded Age – an era which ran from approximately from 1870 through 1900, and was one of dramatic and tremendous industrial and financial growth and wealth building in America.

It was an age, this Gilded Age, during which America expanded global reach and influence.

The World’s Columbian Exposition was worthy of and capably responded to a nation whose cities were growing rapidly and explosively in population, development, and commerce; one in which growing fast and powerfully were the number of people who had the means to enjoy entertainment and amusements; and one that was establishing its own forms and styles of art, architecture, design, and decoration.

A fitting event and spectacle for the Gilded Age and America was the World Columbian Exposition of 1893.

As well, the World’s Columbian Exposition testified to all that, 22 years after the Great Chicago Fire, the city was rebuilt and healthy and rehabilitated.

Covering almost 700 acres, and including 200 buildings, the exposition’s exhibits showcased emerging technology, anthropology, art, culture, zoology, horticulture, religion, guns and artillery … and more.

Exhibitors participated from 60 countries.

Modern urban planning was ushered in with the program and system that brought about the world’s Fair.


During the 1880s, Chicago had been in competition with New York City, St. Louis, and Washington D.C., to host the Columbian Exposition.

When the host city was named, in 1890, the Chicago board organizing the fair chose, for the designing of the event’s buildings and facades, the team of John Wellborn Root and Daniel Burnham, famous building architects and partners in the Chicago firm, Burnham and Root.

Messrs. Root and Burnham resolved that the style of the structures of exposition would be French neoclassical – and would include buildings of extraordinary size and majesty.

In 1891, when Mr. Root, 41, died from pneumonia, Mr. Burnham became Director of Works for the fair.

Daniel Burnham may have found himself in over his head, but he quickly took charge, and did so effectively and brilliantly.

To be the creative and project general for the planning of the grounds of the exposition, the organizing board chose landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, already iconic and the biggest name in landscape architecture in America.

Mr. Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted, the lead architects for the exposition, worked together.

In planning the landscape of the fair, Mr. Olmsted had two primary lieutenants: Harry Codman, an architect in the firm that Mr. Olmsted founded in Brookline, MA, which was the first full-time landscape architectural firm in the U.S.; and Calvert Vaux, an Englishman with whom Olmsted had already famously collaborated on projects, the best known of which and a signature for U.S. urban parkland design: Central Park in New York City.

Now, for that cosmic and cultural connection Willwork feels with the World’s Columbian Exposition – it is staked to the business of expositions and the expanse of F.L.O.- designed property near our corporate offices.

There are other connections, but let’s stay here with Frederick Law Olmsted.

At the time he took on the Columbian Exposition project, Mr. Olmsted’s resume of high-profile landscape design achievement included, in addition to Central Park, the Emerald Necklace in Boston, the campus of Stanford University, portions of the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, and George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.

As well, on F.L.O’s resume was extensive work in North Easton: The Memorial Cairn, a Civil War memorial known popularly as The Rockery; the grounds of Ames Free Library and neighboring Queset House; and the landscapes of three Ames family estates: Governor Oliver Ames EstateLangwater, and Sheep Pasture.

For the grounds for the exposition, Mr. Olmsted selected an area of land called Jackson Park, formerly called South Park, which had been renamed in 1881 for Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States. F.L.O. was well acquainted with the park, for he and Calvert Vaux designed it some 20 years before.

While under the direction of Mr. Olmsted and Mr. Vaux, areas of Jackson Park had been cultivated and represented a beautiful harmony between nature and man’s design, there was still large areas of swamp, not the easiest grounds with which to contend.

What Olmsted planned for the swamp, and which would be realized, and which would work in visual and functional tandem with adjacent Lake Michigan, was a seascape with a grand central basin, and smaller pools, and also canals. Raised above these waterways would be terraces.

Frederick Law Olmsted, who had already made history, continued to do with with World’s Columbian Exposition.

“Not nearly and widely appreciated is the work that Frederick Law Olmsted did in Chicago – it is a best kept secret,” said Julia Bachrach, Planning Supervisor with the Chicago Park District, in a recent phone conversation with Willwork. “Large areas of parkland that Olmsted designed, and which were constructed in Chicago, were successful tests and important developments in the public park movement in America – and remain beautiful places for recreation and for social and education programs.”

Frederick Law Olmsted, Daniel Burnham, Harry Codman, Calvet Vaux were giant talents in a vast team of giant talent. And the designation “team” is apt, for these creative minds worked cooperatively and in unison.

Three of those minds created and developed artistic treasures in North Easton Village.

There was Augustus Saint-Gaudens, named Creative Director for the fair. His creative direction included designing the official exposition medal.

Louis Comfort Tiffany designed a chapel, breathtaking in beauty, that was on display within the exhibit of Tiffany & Co., the jewelry firm founded by his father Charles Lewis Tiffany. Designed and crafted in Byzantine style, the chapel was held in awe by expo attendees, with its intricate constitution of multicolored reflective glass, ornately carved pillars and arches, a baptismal font, and electric chandelier.

Mr. Tiffany, already well known for his work, would see his star rise fast and higher as a direct result of his chapel at the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Stanford White, and his business partners, Charles McKim and William Mead, designed the Agricultural Building, one of the main buildings of the fair.

Looking west – Court of Honor and Grand Basin, World's Columbian Exposition; in foreground, The Republic statue; at other end of basin is The Administration Building

Looking west – Court of Honor and Grand Basin, World’s Columbian Exposition; in foreground, The Republic statue; at other end of basin is The Administration Building

The central concourse of the exposition was the Court of Honor, unto itself a mini and majestic metropolis formed of Olmsted’s basin – called the Grand Basin – flanked by neoclassical buildings all painted with a white chalky plaster, and at night bathed in incandescent electric light.

A White City.

That incandescent electric light, that electricity, that illuminated the White City, resulted from a battle of iconic and giant American companies and technologies: General Electric (recently formed with the merger of Edison General Electric and Thomson Houston-Electric), and its direct current, versus Westinghouse Electric, and its alternating current.

Westinghouse’s bid to power the Chicago World’s Fair proposed 93,000 incandescent lamps was 70 cents per lamp lower than what Edison bid.

Westinghouse won the business, but its bid was so low that throughout the run of the exposition it was running in place (and bleeding money) to replace and maintain bulbs and other equipment.

At one end of the Court of Honor was the 65-foot high plaster statue, The Republic, created by Daniel Chester French, the man whose long career included designing, for the 1875 centennial commemoration of the Battle of Concord, the Minute Man statue at the North Bridge in Concord, MA; and, from 1915 through 1919 designing and overseeing the sculpting of the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

On the other end of the Court of Honor was the domed Administration Building, the plans for which were developed by Richard Morris Hunt, who, at the time of the planning the exposition was arguably the most prominent and accomplished architect on the Columbian Exposition design team.

Other structural architects who designed buildings for the fair were some of the most eminent of the period, and remain so in posterity: Dankmar AdlerCharles B. AtwoodHenry Ives CobbSolon Spencer BemanSophia Hayden BennettWilliam MundieRobert Swain PeabodyGeorge P. PostLouis Sullivan, and Henry Van Brunt.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, in talking with Daniel Burnham, put in perspective the assembly of talent planning and designing the exposition, when he compared it to the group that planned and created the buildings, paintings, and sculptures of Florence during the Renaissance.

Mr. Saint-Gaudens said to Mr. Burnham, “Look here, old fellow, do you realize that this is the greatest meeting of artists since the 15th century?”

So much, so many aspects, of the World’s Columbian Exposition were awesome concepts rendered on awesome scale.

Willwork Inc. Exhibit & Event Specialists enthusiastically salutes an epic achievement.

Consider just one aspect of logistics. Exhibits shipped in to the exposition came in the form of almost 163,000 packages, which were transported using almost 8,000 vehicles.

There was entertainment, and also carnival rides, among them the original Ferris Wheel, designed and engineered by George Washington Ferris Gate Jr. It was a giant wheel – 264 feet high, with 36 cars, each which could hold 40 people.

It was a big tradeshow, the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Innovation and invention were on display at the fair.

Consider that all amusements, with the towering Ferris Wheel the anchor, were located on the one-mile long Midway Plaisance section of the exposition. This layout marked the first time that a world’s fair had separate areas for exhibits and amusements.

Also for the first time, a world’s fair would have national pavilions. Forty-six countries operated pavilions in which, among other uses, were forums in which to make trade and tourism pitches.

Following is an excerpt from a article, by Barbara Maranzani, titled, “7 Things You May Not Know About the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair”:

Among the well-loved commercial products that made their debut at the Chicago World’s Fair were Cream of Wheat, Juicy Fruit gum and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Technological products that would soon find their way into homes nationwide, such as the dishwasher and fluorescent light bulbs, had early prototype versions on display in Chicago as well.

Please click here to be taken to the full article, which was published on March 1, 2013.

The first public moving walkway – called the Great Wharf or Moving Sidewalk – ran on electricity and in a loop along the bank of Lake Michigan. People could either walk or sit as they transported.


In 2004, the name White City, and the Chicago World’s Fair, would be popularly reintroduced to America when Erik Larson’s book, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, was published. It became a #1 bestseller.

H.H. Holmes –

H.H. Holmes – “The Devil in the White City”

The Devil in the White City tells the story of the exposition, its two primary architects, Burnham and Olmsted, and Dr. H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who lived in Chicago, and who was particularly busy in his gruesome enterprise during the fair – with the fair providing for him cover … and victims.

The man who would become H.H. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett in Vermont in 1861.  Mr. Mudgett would graduate from the University of Michigan’s Department of Medicine and Surgery in 1884.

It was in 1886, just prior to moving to Chicago, and in an attempt to avoid being caught for any number of crimes he committed, that Herman Webster Mudgett became Henry Howard “H.H.” Holmes.

In Chicago, Dr. H.H. Holmes found work as a pharmacist at Elizabeth S. Holton’s drugstore.  He eventually bought the store from Ms. Holton, whom, curiously, after her sale to Mr. Holmes, disappeared.  When people asked as Elizabeth Holton’s whereabouts, Mr. Holmes said she had moved to California to be near her family.

Shortly before the start of the Columbian Exposition, Dr. Holmes purchased an empty lot across the street from the drugstore.  On the lot he built a massive three-story house that took up a city block, and which locals called “The Castle.”  On the first floor of the building he operated and owned a drugstore at which he worked as a pharmacist.  Other businesses were located on this floor as well.

Areas of the second and third floors, and the basement, were used for other pursuits, and were designed and built to accommodate them.  These pursuits were torture, killing, dismemberment, dissection, and destruction of evidence.

On the upper two floors, design features included rooms with no windows, some of which were equipped with gas jets to asphyxiate victims; trapdoors; stairways and halls with dead ends; peepholes; and chutes down which bodies could be slid into the basement.

As for the basement, that is where a dissecting table and furnace were located.  Some bodies Dr. Holmes stripped of tissue and flesh – which was incinerated in the furnace or chemically destroyed; what remained, skeletons, he sold to medical schools.

How Mr. Holmes managed to have The Castle constructed without its purpose being discovered is that he allowed no carpenters or tradespeople to work long on the project before firing them.

H.H. Holmes has been called “America’s First Serial Killer.”  If not the nation’s first serial killer, he surely was one of the most prolific.  He primarily … but not exclusively … murdered young women.  Prior to the start of the world’s fair, he found an abundant source of victims among those employed in his pharmacy.

While the Columbian Exposition was open – and his gruesome crimes not yet discovered – Dr. Holmes ran within The Castle into an enterprise in high demand in the vicinity of an international event that tens of millions would attend: a hotel.

For many, the hotel would be one in which check-in was permanent.

With the fair ongoing, victims unknowingly arrived at their doom and a house of horrors.  Within The Castle, H.H. Holmes murdered at a feverish pace.

A serial perpetrator of many crimes, H.H. Holmes got out of Chicago before the diabolical work within The Castle was discovered.  He traveled across the U.S. and Canada and continued to kill.

It was in 1894, when authorities were pursuing him in connection with the death a criminal associate of his, and the disappearance of the associate’s three children (whose remains were later found), that Chicago police entered The Castle and uncovered ample evidence, including human remains, of Dr. Holmes’s killing enterprise.

Dr. Holmes was arrested and tried and convicted for killing his crime partner.  He was sentenced to death.  While awaiting execution he confessed to 30 murders; it was a confession, the specifics of which – if not the numbers of victims – were dubious, in that some of the people he said he killed were in fact still alive.

It will never be known the extent of H.H. Holmes’s killing.  Some estimate he murdered as many as 200.   His murder count just in the The Castle – later dubbed “The Murder Castle” – alone was probably at least 20 people.

Erik Larson’s thoroughly engaging and gripping, The Devil in the White City, is necessarily, at times, unsettling and disturbing – the horror from which we cannot look away.

Yet The Devil in the White City is also masterful in describing the monumental achievement and monstrous beauty of the World’s Columbian Exposition, and its lasting and positive influence of America, as evidenced in this excerpt from the book:

If evenings at the fair were seductive, the nights were ravishing. The lamps that laced every building and walkway produced the most elaborate demonstration of electric illumination ever attempted and the first large-scale test of alternating current. The fair alone consumed three times as much electricity as the entire city of Chicago. These were important engineering milestones, but what visitors adored was the sheer beauty of seeing so many lights ignited in one place, at one time. Every building, including the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, was outlined in white bulbs. Giant searchlights – the largest ever made and said to be visible sixty miles away – had been mounted on the Manufactures’ roof and swept the grounds and surrounding neighborhoods. Large colored bulbs lit the hundred-foot plumes of water that burst from the MacMonnies Fountain.

This vision compelled wonder – it compelled awe.

As did so much else of the fair.

The World’s Columbian Exposition, with great energy, and immense majesty, upheld and continued the exuberance and statement America was making on the cusp of the 20th century.

Over the next decade, America would host world’s fairs in Atlanta, Nashville, Omaha, Buffalo, and St. Louis.

Each exposition and each fair was a societal exercise in trumpeting and showing off – and also that of a relatively new nation asserting and feeling good about itself.


The planned extraordinary and magnificent closing celebration for the Columbian Exposition did not take place.

On October 28, two days before the final day of the fair, Carter Harrison Sr., who had served four terms as mayor of Chicago, from 1879 to 1887, and just been elected to his fifth term as mayor of the city, was assassinated in his home by Patrick Eugene Prendergast.

Mr. Prendergast was an emotionally disturbed man who had supported Mayor-elect Prendergast in his campaign, motivated by the delusion that in return he would receive a job in the mayor’s administration.  When Mr. Prendergast did not receive a job offer, he sought revenge.

With the assassination of Mayor Harrison – much beloved and a major supporter of the Columbian Exposition – the closing ceremony for the fair was canceled.  In its place a large memorial service was held to honor and mourn the mayor.


While buildings constructed for the World’s Columbian Exposition were supposed to be temporary, their demise was hastened, following the closing of the expo, by a series of three fires in 1894 that destroyed almost all of the fair’s buildings.

Of the original Columbian Exposition buildings only two remain and can be visited today: the Palace of Fine Arts, which now houses Museum of Science and Industry, and the World’s Congress Auxiliary Building, which today is the home of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Frederick Law Olmsted’s influence on the Jackson Park area, and on Chicago, is enduring, as described in the following excerpt from a page at the Chicago Park District website:

In 1895, Olmsted’s firm, then known as Olmsted, Olmsted, and Eliot, began transforming the [site of the Columbian exposition] back into parkland. Remaining true to the park’s original plan, the re-design included an interconnected system of serene lagoons with lushly planted shores, islands, and peninsulas. A magnificent promenade, now part of Lake Shore Drive, provided broad views of Lake Michigan. In contrast to the sublime views  of the water, the plan also incorporated an elongated meadow for lawn tennis and a larger playing field. In 1899, the South Park Commission used the long meadow as the site for the first public golf course in the Midwest, and the following year the playing field was adapted for use as an 18-hole course that still exists today.


Next in this series: the Pan-American Exposition, the world’s fair held in Buffalo in 1901.