7 of the Most Awe-Inspiring Buildings from 1893's World's Fair
Step into the White City.
Chicago History Museum/Getty Images
Published May 1, 2018
Published 3 months ago
Though now lost to history, for six months in 1893, millions flocked to the grand White City. The heart of the World's Columbian Exposition — celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus landing in the new world — was so named due to the gleaming construction materials covering many of its Beaux-Arts-inspired exteriors. Planned by architects John Wellborn Root, Daniel Burnham (designer of New York's Flatiron Building), Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of New York's Central Park), and Charles B. Atwood, the expansive fairgrounds covered some 600 acres in what is now Chicago's Jackson Park and boasted some 200 newly constructed buildings (which, astonishingly, were meant to be only temporary).
While the fair's architecture wasn't universally lauded (Louis Sullivan, who designed the exposition's Transportation Building, later said in his autobiography that the fair's overall look set American architecture back half a century), the White City is still a feat of American engineering and imagination. Here, in honor of its 125th anniversary on May 1, seven of the Chicago World Fair's stand-out structures.
Chicago History Museum/Getty ImagesTHE ADMINISTRATION BUILDING (DESIGNED BY RICHARD MORRIS HUNT)This massive domed structure, with its four attached pavilions, stood at the edge of a picturesque artificial lagoon. And while its stated purpose was to simply house offices, the building was undeniably the centerpiece of the grounds, wowing visitors with its size and grandeur. Demolished not long after the fair ended, the Administration Building remains an iconic symbol of the World's Columbian Exposition (in fact, it served as the cover art for Erik Larson's historical novel about the fair "The Devil in the White City").
Field Museum Library/Getty ImagesTHE PALACE OF FINE ARTS (DESIGNED BY CHARLES B. ATWOOD)Meant to house beautiful (not to mention, valuable) pieces of work created by artists from around the globe, the Palace of Fine Arts was one of the only structures built with fire-proofing in mind. To that end, it is one of the only buildings that remains; it's the current home of the Museum of Science and Industry.Chicago History Museum/Getty ImagesTHE ORIGINAL FERRIS WHEEL (DESIGNED BY GEORGE WASHINGTON GALE FERRIS JR.)Not a building, per se, but undoubtedly one of the most important structures built for the World's Fair. The original Ferris wheel, standing at 264 feet tall, was constructed as a rival to the Eiffel Tower, the crown jewel of the earlier 1889 World's Fair in Paris. A popular attraction, the Ferris wheel is often credited with saving the exposition from bankruptcy. It later made an appearance at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, before being demolished there in 1906.Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago/Getty ImagesTHE TRANSPORTATION BUILDING (DESIGNED BY LOUIS SULLIVAN)Rebelling against the fair's prevailing Beaux-Arts aesthetic, Sullivan designed this building — which housed exhibits focused on railway, marine, and vehicle transportation — to stand in stark contrast, with its strong color palette and neo-Roman design. (Though hard to tell in black-and-white imagery, the grand entrance was a gleaming gold.)
Field Museum Library/Getty ImagesTHE WOMAN'S BUILDING (DESIGNED BY SOPHIA HAYDEN)Talk about a wage gap: When recent MIT graduate Sophia Hayden entered and won a women-only contest to design the fair's Woman's Building, she received a paltry $1,000 for her design. The male architects, on the other hand, earned $10,000. Based on Hayden's thesis renderings of a Renaissance museum, the Woman's Building housed arts and crafts and played host to a number of conferences, the most popular of which addressed clothing and dress reform. The building was demolished in 1896, and Hayden never worked as an architect again.Field Museum Library/Getty ImagesTHE HORTICULTURAL BUILDING (DESIGNED BY WILLIAM LA BARON JENNEY AND WILLIAM B. MUNDIE)Containing eight greenhouses and more than five acres of plants and other leafy greens, the Horticultural Building measured nearly 1,000 ft. wide. Many of its contents — along with those of the Anthropology and Mines, Mineralogy, and Metallurgy Buildings — became the basis of the founding collection of Chicago's world-renowned Field Museum. Since razed, the Horticultural Building site will soon be home to Barack Obama's presidential library.Field Museum Library/Getty ImagesTHE FISHERIES BUILDING (DESIGNED BY HENRY IVES COBB)The smallest of what are considered the fair's "great buildings," the Fisheries Building housed a dozen large aquariums and many more small tanks, equaling some 140,000 gallons of water. Its exterior design (which nowadays could be mistaken for a Disney World resort) reflected its interior contents — frog, eel, and tortoise embellishments festooned the facade.