World Columbian Expo Poster

by Dr. Lori Verderame

The World Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago, Illinois, in 1893, in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Americas. Best known by historians by its given name, The World Columbian Exposition, was also known as the Chicago’s World’s Fair. It was held in Chicago’s famous Jackson Park.

Although the fair opened its gates a year late on May 1, 1893, the event was an extravaganza that continued until late October of 1893. Called by visitors, the “White City” for the classical white masonry buildings which housed the Expo’s attractions, the World Columbian Exposition attracted people from around the globe to Chicago and left an indelible mark on American history and architecture. There are also many valuable World’s Fair Collectibles still remaining from the exposition.

World's Fair

Architect and designer, Daniel Burnham, was the chief organizer and the director of works for the Expo. The architectural models and the group of buildings that were constructed for the Expo spearheaded the famous Chicago School of Architecture and paved the way for such major figures in American architecture as Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, William LeBaron Jenney, and others.

The group of white, regal buildings constructed for the fair was the most talked about aspect of the event. This emphasis on architecture led by Burnham attracted not only many visitors to the fair but also enticed an elite group of America’s foremost architects to meet, in January of 1891, to undertake the ambitious site and architectural plan for the fair. The plan revolved around a Court of Honor in which all of the buildings housing exhibitions and attractions were situated including: the Manufactures and Liberal Arts, Mining, Machinery, Agriculture, and Administration buildings. Specifically, Adler and Sullivan’s Transportation Building and Richard M. Hunt’s Administration Building were major attractions.

All of the building’s facades were constructed of “staff” or a temporary material of plaster, cement, and jute and the uniform order of cornice height and classical designs were enhanced by the white color of all of the structures. While the interiors of each of the buildings on the main court were more like warehouses than palaces, these structures came to identify the Beaux Art Classicism that would spread across the country and introduce to the world of modern architecture some of its best known figures including Louis Sullivan, Adler & Sullivan, and later, Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Court of Honor’s architecture was harmonious with lighted fountains, sculptures, beautiful gardens, and the special technological attractions of the fair.  In an era of severe economic depression and even increasing industrialization, the World Columbian Exposition offered a feeling of optimism to those who attended.

Ferris wheel

In addition to the architectural wonders of the World Columbian Expo, another new innovation attracted and intrigued many of the fair’s visitors. This attraction was the Ferris Wheel by George Ferris. Undeniably, the fair’s technological marvel was the giant wheel designed by Ferris. It is well known that the Ferris Wheel’s 1893 debut was a direct retort in response to Gustave Eiffel’s groundbreaking Eiffel Tower which was uncovered at the 1889 Paris Exposition International (also known as Paris’ World’s Fair). The Ferris Wheel was 260 feet off the ground with 36 cars that carried 40 to 60 riders within each car. The original Ferris Wheel supported a great many riders, not like today’s carnival versions that only carry about 15 to 20 cars with 2 to 3 riders per car.

The Expo boasted other amusements including the mooring of three ships that had sailed to Chicago from Palos, Spain for the event. These ships were replicas of Columbus’ three ships: the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. The fair featured Hagenbeck’s Animal Show and an active reconstruction of the volanic power of Mt. Vesuvius complete with a daily destruction of Pompeii in a diorama. There was an old Vienna beer garden and an opportunity to view African natives from the French-conquered nations.

By far, the fair’s most popular attractions were the Ferris Wheel and the Street in Cairo, which transported fairgoers to the crowded bazaars and camel rides of the Middle East. A major controversy occurred when the fair’s organizers allowed women to Belly Dance in plain view of all visitors. While the Victorian men clamored to see this site, women boycotted the attraction entirely. As expected, the mile long strip of parkland for an on-site amusement area was home to those amusements that ensured the economic success of the fair.

One of the ironies of this great event was the mishap that occurred in mid July. Specifically, on July 10, 1893, the fair’s Cold Storage Building, toted as the greatest refrigerator on earth, actually caught fire. It had housed an ice skating rink and the ice-making facility for the fair. A number of firemen lost their lives trying to contain the blaze.

By the end of the fair’s run, in mid to late October, attendance swelled to nearly 750,000 people for one day. Another fire made history at the fair as The Court of Honor buildings were set ablaze and destroyed for scrap material as they were only intended for the fair.