Up to the moment that the Chicago World’s Fair opened to the public on May 1, 1893, crews scrambled to replant landscaping that had been washed away in a torrential rain storm. Puddles drowned the newly sodded lawns and some paint was still wet, but to the eyes of that day’s fairgoers, it was nothing short of a photo finish. The few remaining pieces of the Fair dazzle today’s viewers just like they did over a century ago.
Rather than a simple map, enjoy UCLA’s three-dimensional recreation of the Fair:
In the nineteenth century, cities were filthy places. Factory pollution and dust clogged the air. So when fairgoers were greeted by the glimmering Court of Honor, nicknamed the White City, it seemed like they had been transported to another world. Overseeing the Fair’s design and construction, Daniel Burnham had the huge neoclassical buildings coated in soft white paint so that they would “glow” in the sunlight.
The real spectacle began after sunset. After all, it was at the White City where Nikola Tesla’s game-changing alternating current—which was chosen over Thomas Edison’s direct current to power the exposition—literally gave light to the fair at a time when lighted streets were still quite novel.
The Columbian Exposition, or the Chicago World’s Fair, is often called the Fair that Changed America: it spanned 600 acres and introduced fairgoers to wonders of electricity such as elevators and the first electric chair; products we now take for granted like the zipper, Cream of Wheat, and Cracker Jacks; and presented viewers with a look at Edison’s kinetoscope and a listen to the first voice recording. The Midway Plaisance, from which we get the term “midway,” included George G.W. Ferris’s new Wheel.
The Midway was also home to some less seemly exhibits. For example, people of faraway nations were put on display like animals: Lapps, Eskimos, Zulu, and opium smokers from China.
Still, the Fair’s lasting vestiges are beautiful specimens. And if the Court of Honor was a ring, the Statue of the Republic was its jewel. Daniel Chester French, who also sculpted Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, sculpted the much-vaunted statue. The work received its nickname, Big Mary, since it stood a full six-stories tall.
A more-permanent version of the statue was crafted after the Fair ended, but at one-third the size. It can be seen today off of Lakeshore, where E. Hayes Drive meets S. Richards Drive.
The Palace of Fine Arts is one of the Fair’s most impressive remaining buildings, thanks to some forward thinking on behalf of the Fair’s architects. Chicago had a history of fires, making art collectors and museums wary of sending art to the Fair. So Charles Atwood, a Burnham architect, had the Palace fireproofed. The Palace has since been renovated and now serves as the Museum of Science and Industry but it ultimately looks the same as it did in 1893, except that it is no longer white.