“THE WHITE CITY”
GREECE was; Greece is no more.
Temple and town
Have crumbled down;
Time is the fire that hath consumed them all.
Statue and wall
In ruin strew the universal floor.
Greece lives, but Greece no more!
Its ashes breed
The undying seed
Blown westward till, in Rome’s imperial towers,
Still westward — lo, a veiled and virgin shore!
Say not, “Greece is no more.”
Through the clear morn
On light winds borne
Her white-winged soul sinks on the New World’s breast.
Ah! happy West —
Greece flowers anew, and all her temples soar!
One bright hour, then no more
Shall to the skies
These columns nse.
But though art’s flower shall fade, again the seed
Onward shall speed,
Quickening the land from lake to ocean’s roar.
Art lives, though Greece may never
From the ancient mold
As once of old
Exhale to heaven the inimitable bloom;
Yet from that tomb
Beauty walks forth to light the world forever.
Richard Watson Gilder (1844-1909)
February 11, 1893
World Fairs began in the mid-nineteenth century with London’s Crystal Palace Exposition in 1851 and America, in particular, loved them. Between 1876 and 1905, America hosted twelve world fairs or expositions – including Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 – and topped the list of host countries. “The whole principle of a world’s fair is to overwhelm the eye with the cornucopia of the material world (and to demonstrate just how wonderful the host country is on the stage of the world)” In addition, Chicago wanted to show the rest of the country and the world how great Chicago was. And, they succeeded. "Sell the cookstove if necessary and come,” wrote author Hamlin Garland to his parents. “You must see this fair." It was a gleaming white Utopian fantasy city and no one wanted to miss it.
One of the most frequent questions I receive is, “Why was “The White City” white?" The answer to that question is twofold: to save time and to enhance and emphasize the classical architecture. Construction began late in 1891, so to meet the opening day deadline of May 1, 1893 (the dedication was on October 21, 1892) time was of the essence.
According to Robert Muccigrosso in his 1993 book, Celebrating the New World: Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 (Ivan R. Dee, publisher):
As the immensity of the undertaking became apparent, the planners hit upon a scheme that would expedite construction and inadvertently give the exposition its most memorable feature and later nickname. According to [Daniel] Burnham, a group of architects were viewing S. S. Beman’s nearly completed Mines and Mining Building when one of them suggested painting the structure white. There had been no dictum concerning colors, but now the time-saving suggestion took hold, and the planners ordered that all the buildings around the Court of Honor receive a coat of “staff,” a mixture of plaster, cement and fiber that had its origin in France a generation earlier. This durable, cheap, and easily produced white admixture became the coating for the fair’s framed structures or iron and wood and for its statuary as well. Of all the major buildings, only [Louis] Sullivan’s Transportation Building offered polychromy. Applying a single color to buildings obviously saved time, and so did an innovative means of application: a powdered paint sprayer. What emerged from a measure of convenience was nothing less than an aesthetically startling “White City,” whose glistening surfaces intensified the aura of ancient Greece and Rome evoked by its neoclassical architecture and whose luster enthralled millions of visitors.
Stroll the White City
Twenty great photos from the Columbian Exposition were featured in the Chicago Tribune yesterday. The ticket pictured above cost 50 cents and was good for one admission on "Chicago Day."
"THE WHITE CITY" AND AFTER by Charles Zueblin. From A Decade of Civic Development (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1905):59-82.
Photo Credit: Introduction: The White City by K. L. Nichols