Building Series: The “Mostly” Lost Treasure

18 November, 2021

World's Columbian Exposition

In 1893, the World’s Colombian Exposition celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World. It is often referred to as “The White City,” for its plethora of buildings, all cloaked in white. It featured 14 “great buildings” surrounding a giant reflecting pool called the Great Basin. During its run, the fair welcomed more than 27.3 million people from around the world.
The design
Director of Works Daniel H. Burnham focused on architecture and sculpture, gathering the top talent of the day to design the buildings and grounds according to Beaux-Arts principles of symmetry, balance, and splendor. The exposition became known as the White City because of the streetlights that illuminated the boulevards and buildings at night—and white staff, an artificial stone that covered building facades. 
Selected Highlights
  • 46 countries and 34 U.S. states hosted pavilions.
  • Buffalo Bill Cody balked at paying the Exposition 50% of his gross proceeds. So, he set up in a large lot next to the fairgrounds. As a result, Cody departed Chicago with a million dollars cash and writer Matt Braun titled his article, “Buffalo Bill Goosed the World’s Fair.”
  • Life-size reproductions of Columbus' ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María came over from Spain.
  • Louis Comfort Tiffany made his reputation with a gorgeous chapel designed and built for the exposition.
  • The exposition featured the world’s first Ferris wheel—264 feet high with 36 cars, each holding 40 people.
  • The Woman’s Building, managed by a 117-member Board of Lady Managers, featured women’s accomplishments exclusively.
  • People of color were banned from the main park, an act condemned by prominent civil right leaders Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, Irvine Garland Penn, and Ferdinand Lee Barnett.
Where did it all go?
Because many of the fair’s buildings were intended to be temporary, they were removed after the fair closed. In July 1894, most of the fairgrounds were destroyed by fire.
Chicago Palace of Fine Arts

In 1933, the Palace of Fine Arts was rebuilt with permanent materials and now houses Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Construction costs for the World’s Congress Building were shared with the Art Institute of Chicago, which moved into the building as planned after the fair closed.
For those wish to know more about the exposition, we highly recommend Erik Larson's The Devil in the White CityA historical non-fiction book, presented in a novelistic style, it is based on real characters and events.
We hope you’ll join us on December 16th for our next installment.  if you’d like to provide feedback, we would welcome it.  You can choose to share your name or remain anonymous.

The “Mostly” Lost Treasure

Name and location: World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago
Style: Neo-Classical and Beaux-Arts
Completed: 1893
Architects: Daniel BurnhamJohn Wellborn RootFrederick Law Olmsted and Charles B. Atwood.