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Friday, July 02, 2004

White City

Sorry for the long post, but I'm excited about this list: I plan to take a tour of these spots (some I've already seen of course, but not in sequence like this). Also the Trib's articles go behind firewall rather quickly. The dead trees edition includes photos, but I'll have to take my own I suppose. Matt: this will be on your tourist itinerary when you and Karen visit......


Chi Tribune: Remnants of the White City
"the time is right to recall the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, the predecessor to our logjam of city festivals.

In the course of its six-month run, that remarkable World's Fair drew 27 million visitors to Jackson Park. Attendees sampled new foods (including Cracker Jack and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer), marveled at new technologies (including the zipper), and listened to music transmitted live via telephone from New York all while surrounded by a "White City" of buildings envisioned by Chicago's architectural legend Daniel Burnham.

The 1893 fair has, of course, gained new prominence since the publication of "Devil in the White City," in which author Erik Larson examines the architecture of the World's Fair and profiles one of the nation's first serial killers, H.H. Holmes. For most readers, the book is an examination of a simultaneously grand and gory period of American history. For the local reader, the book doubles as a treasure map to remnants of a place in time when the eyes of the world widened at the fest on Chicago's South Side.

The World's Fair still exists. One need only know where to look.

Palace of Fine Arts/Museum of Science and Industry

The Museum of Science and Industry represents the only major building remaining from the World's Fair of 1893. Unlike the other structures that were destroyed after the fair, the Palace of Fine Arts (as it was known), which was built to showcase artworks, remained. The backside of the museum (over-looking Jackson Park Lagoon) was actually the front of the palace during the fair, and the color of the exterior was changed during renovations. But the building looks almost exactly the way it did in 1893. Some of the light posts from the fair still illuminate the museum campus.

Ferris wheel

Visitors to the 1889 World's Fair in Paris marveled at the Eiffel Tower. When Burnham challenged American engineers to "out Eiffel Eiffel," a Galesburg, Ill., native presented his idea for a massive, riding wheel. Initially, fair organizers doubted whether George Washington Ferris' wheel was feasible (or safe). But the young engineer persisted, and the world's first Ferris wheel amazed fairgoers.

Ticket booth

While most of the grand buildings and monuments were destroyed, smaller elements of the World's Fair have withstood the past century. One in particular is a ticket booth from the fair now stands in the sideyard shadows of a famous Oak Park home.

The DeCaro House, 313 N. Forest Ave., designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1906, draws most of the attention from historians, but the unusual shack in the yard is a treasure. In its retirement from the ticket business, the structure has been used as a garden toolshed, a rabbit hut and now a garden decoration.

Rebecca Hyman of the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust: "It's a small shed, but it still looks like a ticket booth. The original window grills of the booth were found in the basement of the house."

The Rookery

With partner John Root, Daniel Burnham built The Rookery building in 1888 and situated their office on the 11th floor. As lead architect of the World's Fair, Burnham attracted the nation's top builders to The Rookery and drafted blueprints for the White City in the building that today stands at 209 S. LaSalle St. The Rookery is a Chicago landmark, hailed as much for its unique architecture as for its role in history.

Larson: "It's a gorgeous building. The library is still there and it's like you walk back in time. It was so tall when constructed that Burnham would have looked out and seen nothing at that level. It's a fantastic relic."


Statue of the Republic/Big Mary

Perhaps the most memorable image of the fair is that of Big Mary, the 111-foot tall Statue of the Republic that oversaw the Midway of the fair. Cast in gold leaf with arms uplifted, Big Mary welcomed the fairgoers and set a tone of classical wonder. The original statue was destroyed. Today, a replica welcomes golfers to the Jackson Park public course, which blankets in green what was once the White City. Perhaps better nicknamed Big Bertha, the replica statue's uplifted arms seem to inspire duffers to greatness.

Graceland graves

The grave sites of Burnham, former partner John Root, architect Louis Sullivan, Mayor Carter Henry Harrison and other Chicagoans central to the story of "Devil in the White City" can be found at Graceland Cemetery on the North Side. "On a crystalline day," wrote Larson, "you can almost hear the tinkle of fine crystal, the rustle of silk and wool, almost smell the expensive cigars." Serial killer H.H. Holmes is buried in a cement-filled grave (to thwart grave robbers) in Holy Cross Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Trees/gardens/lagoons in Jackson Park

The grounds of modern-day Jackson Park are remnants of the work of the fair's lead landscape architect, Frederick Olmsted. Built to awe the millions of 19th Century fairgoers, these grounds today welcome the crowds that congregate to sunbathe, barbecue or admire the natural beauty.

Larson: "The lagoons and hills can be considered remnants of Olmsted's work; with his team he essentially re-created that whole place. All the hills were manmade -- constructed of residue from digging the canals. The landscape has changed significantly since the World's Fair, so you have to be careful judging what is from that era and what is new. The contours of Jackson Park have changed; there's now a marina and a golf course.

Brian Williquette, district forester with Chicago Park District: "There are living trees in the park that were planted for the World's Fair, and there are trees that predate 1893, which Olmsted designed around. There is a burr oak just north of the rose garden with a spectacular 990-foot spread. And there is a fenced-in area that was a rose garden at the fair. The majority of the lagoons are Olmsted's work"

Wooded Island
Rising like a patch of wiry hair out of the Jackson Park Lagoon, the Wooded Island has an elegant history. Olmsted dug out portions of land to turn a peninsula into this island, on which sat a Japanese Garden amid a variety of plant life. The island may look unkempt to the weekend gardener, but this was the intent all along.

Larson: "The Wooded Isle was Olmsted's treasure. It's now overgrown and very much tangled -- probably how Olmsted would have loved to see it. I would bet divers would find artifacts in the lagoon surrounding the island."

Williquette: "Olmsted used native and non-native plants, which were eventually allowed to grow wild."

The Midway

The Midway, once the main grounds of the World's Fair that hosted belly dancers, side shows and oddities from around the world, is today a portion of Jackson Park. When construction crews recently broke ground to create an ice skating rink, they unearthed massive foundations supported the Ferris wheel.

Midway Plaisance (5950 south; the grassy median that cuts through the University of Chicago campus) snakes through what was the center of the Midway. With its ambling path, the street seems more suited for a fair than a thoroughfare. The area is beautiful in a sleepy way, yet it's hard to imagine that, for a period in history, citizens of the world were transfixed by this spot.

Holmes' Hotel

The White City dazzled the millions of attendees, but also blinded Chicagoans to atrocities such as murders, disappearances and muggings -- the most vicious at the hands of H.H. Holmes. Described at his trial as "the most dangerous man in the world" by district attorney George Graham, Holmes body count will never be known, but in Larson's estimate he was responsible for at least nine murders around the time of the World's Fair.

Holmes built a hotel/torture chamber near what is now the intersection of 63rd and Wallace Streets in the Englewood neighborhood, where he killed and disposed of his victims. Today, a post office sits on the lot that once hid ghastly secrets.

Larson: "It's a pretty tough neighborhood. But Chicago is a far safer city today that in the 1890s."

Troy Taylor, author of "Haunted Chicago" (Whitechapel Productions): "Holmes' hotel is a mysterious location; there are only a couple photos remaining. We still don't know how many he killed there. The building was destroyed right after his trial [Holmes was put to death for murder]. No one took credit for destroying it, but it could have been a group from the neighborhood; the hotel had been attracting curiosity seekers. The lot sat empty until 1938 when the post office was built. I've heard there are strange noises there, and animals won't go on that lot. I doubt that people in the neighborhood even know about what happened there."

Millennium Park

Burnham died in 1912, long before the city broke ground on Millennium Park. But his legacy is alive in the new park, opening July 16. "Millennium Park is similar to the World's Fair in a lot of ways," says Tim Samuelson, cultural historian with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. "They are both symbols of Chicago's achievement and progressive nature. They are huge public works projects built for as many people as possible to enjoy."

Both were overdue as well. Originally the World's Fair was scheduled for 1892 -- 400 years after Columbus -- but didn't open until 1893. And Millennium Park's name seems a bit dated in 2004. But big projects often have big delays -- the focus is the finished product.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this information. I was given a series of Portfolios of Photographs of the Worlds Fair, published by the Werner Co. of Chicago in 1893. They show the amazing buildings that made up the fair, and I find it hard to believe that all those stunning buildings were destroyed. The sculptures alone were just amazing. What a shame.

7:54 PM, March 12, 2005

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this great insight on the remains of the White City. I am currently reading "The Devil in the white City" and am planning to visit the former site of the fair some time in the future. The history behind this fair is amazing and frightning at the same time.

2:13 PM, April 28, 2005


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