"The World's Columbian Exposition"
After the Great Chicago Fire
destroyed much of the city
in 1871, it took years to rebuild.
When it came time to plan
the World's Fair, though, Chicago
beat out St. Louis, New York City,
and even Washington, D.C.
for the honor of hosting it.
Of course, then somebody
had to build the thing.
In order to celebrate
the 400th anniversary
of Christopher Columbus
reaching the New World in
1492, the centerpiece of the fair
was a large lagoon that represented
the long voyage took to get there.
Most of the design came from four men:
John Wellborn Root, Frederick Law Olmsted,
Daniel Burnham, and Charles B. Atwood.
They based it on what they thought a city
should be, all French neoclassical architecture
with its symmetry, balance, and splendor.
The designers weren't the ones
who built the facilities, though.
Most of the builders were
immigrants who came from
eastern or central Europe --
skilled tradesmen among
the Jews from Germany,
carpenters and bricklayers
from what was-will be Poland,
unskilled laborers from Hungary.
The Jews made banners and awnings,
rigged electrical lines and machinery.
The Poles built the booths and
the temporary buildings.
The Hungarians painted
the façades of the buildings,
hauled and tamped earth for
the Jackson Park area.
They called it the White City.
The World's Columbian Exposition
covered 690 acres with almost 200
temporary buildings that rose above
a glittering array of canals and lagoons.
Its representatives included people
and cultures from 46 different countries.
Many exhibits featured musicians and
artists, or works of art inspired by the fair.
There were, of course, disputes.
Some people felt that the very men
who built the World's Fair did not deserve
to enjoy it on account of being foreign.
Others simply counted on the fact
that working men could not take off
a day in the middle of the week
and would thus get shut out.
The original plans called for
the fair to close on Sundays, but
the Chicago Woman's Club petitioned
to keep open, so that everyone who
wished to attend could do so.
Leaders of the civil rights movement --
including Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells,
Irvine Garland Penn, and Ferdinand Lee Barnet --
vigorously protested the event's exclusion of
an exhibit featuring colored Americans.
However, the exposition did include
some exhibits created by black people
and permitted by the white organizers
such as sculptures by Edmonia Lewis,
paintings from George Washington Carver,
and the statistics of Joan Imogen Howard.
It wasn't perfect, of course. The nativists
arrayed themselves against the immigrants
who were proud of their identity and
defended it with great zeal.
Politicians slipped their hands
in the till and police took bribes.
Such were the vagaries of the day.
Despite the challenges, the event
proved to be a resounding success.
Over 27 million people attended
the exposition during its six-month run --
including the Jews, the Poles, the Hungarians,
and immigrants from many other countries --
its grounds and crowds far exceeding
the scope of previous World's Fairs.
It did so well that it became a symbol
of the emerging American Exceptionalism,
imprinting the White City in global consciousness.
It wasn't perfect, but it pointed in that direction,
a pearly metropolis tripping over its slippers
but still stumbling toward enlightenment.
* * *
The World's Columbian Exposition is also known as the Chicago World's Fair, held in 1893. The Jackson Park area required a great deal of work to make it a suitable site.
Chicago history includes multiple waves of immigrants, who did a lot of the work to build the fairgrounds.
Originally meant to close on Sundays, the fair wound up staying open so that even people who worked during the week could enjoy it.
People squabbled over ethnic issues in choosing fair events.