The white city: how to make a city disappear

When we hear of buildings with a ghostly past, we tend to imagine sordid stories and dismal motifs that send shivers up our spines.

A building can be placeholder for many things – good or bad. We might brush with history unknowingly on any given day.

One such building rises just off the shores of Lake Michigan. Like a dramatic set designed for film, it’s pristine stone form is edged by a lagoon that ripples right up to its foundation. Most locals know it as the Museum of Science and Industry on Chicago’s south side. Each time I visit I am awed not just by the exciting displays and experiences that await – but by the bigger secret this building holds, touching me as designer and dreamer alike.

Two long-standing favorites at the museum include the “Yesterday’s Main Street” walk through the early 1900s city streets, as well as a journey into a recreated coal mine. Both uncannily ironic in theme as they represent shades of what this building was built for.

The first step to unlocking the history of the museum is knowing that its “back” patio is more than just a favorite spot for wedding photography, and that the neighboring lagoon is far from coincidental. Visitors today would never guess that this building was designed to face South – away from the majestic skyline that marks the city proper. This lagoon actually used to be the Main Entry to the building. A view from the doorway over the water in 1893 would have revealed a whole other city beyond. For six summer months it was deemed the epicenter of world news, and the most chic showcase of technology. By nighttime it was brilliant with electric lights. This is the year that the world celebrated the World Columbian Exposition, on the southern shores of Chicago, with its formal and grand court of buildings called “The White City” – a glistening and optimistic assemblage of material in an era when the surrounding area was grey with the pollution of a coal-fired infrastructure.

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood…” Daniel Burnham, Architect, Director of Works

[I’m going to pause here for a moment, as the White City is a highly contested blip in time when discussed in architectural circles. The grandeur of this style is appealing to the public, as it’s large scale and familiar language is readily accepted and associated with ideals such as the birth of democracy. The Columbian Exposition in Chicago carried this theme to the highest level and impressed critics on every continent. The design and construction however looked backward in time rather than serve as an authentic expression of where building technology was headed in the late nineteenth century. I will not weigh in on the merit of style one way or another, but I can say that a look at the city architecture in years after the exposition set an alternate trend that makes it a world-class city today. Charles Atwood himself, the architect of the Palace of Fine Arts that now exists as the Museum of Science and Industry, was the creator of the Reliance Building in downtown Chicago just a few years later, which bravely abandoned the Classic styles in favor of new technology forms using expansive glass and terra-cotta covered steel.]

The Columbian Exposition represented many things to Chicago: The industry of the country was hitting strides with the Civil War era behind it. The City of Chicago itself was springing from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1871. In 1889 the city population hit the million count, making it the second largest municipality in the United States. It was a chance to prove itself worthy on the world stage, and the heavy politicizing to win the National Commission earned the “Windy City” nickname. With the challenge to build something great, and assertions that the Midwestern city would fail to deliver, the City of Chicago pulled together to make its mark on history.


The lofty goals of the fair are readily expressed in the words of it’s President of the Board of Directors, Harlow N. Higenbotham:

“The International Exposition, where the richest and rarest products meet in friendly competition, where the ripest wisdom of the ages is represented by the scholars and thinkers of all the world, cannot but result in great and lasting good and in promoting peace and good will… The Exposition stands at the meeting of the world’s highways, where gather the nations of the earth, burdened each with the evidences of its newest and noblest achievements. It is an epitome of the world’s progress, a history and a prophecy.”

History buffs recount that the site behind the museum, now called Jackson Park and practically vacant, was once the site of the World Columbian Exposition. This is a slice of Chicago history proportionate to the pizza eaten by the locals – it was huge. (Even big enough to represent one of four red stars on the City of Chicago flag.) The assemblage of over 400 buildings by a dream-team of world architects was overseen by Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmstead. Called “The White City” it conjured up a movement in architecture known as Neoclassicism whose stately forms harken to classical architecture and can be seen reflected in our nation’s capital.

Hmm… which of these truths do I want to embrace today? I choose YOU Denial Teddy-Bear! Okay, so they painted it white. It was grand. It was filled with all the latest technology and world culture, along with its share of gimmickry. It was a privilege to visit, but where is it now?

Besides being a footnote in the history books, or a generator of antique collectibles I would venture to say that the White City still lives. You see it at almost every state fair, amusement park, and city festival in the form of a Ferris Wheel. You see it in the pride of Chicago when it hosts world-renowned festivals such as Lollapalooza. It’s spirit inspired businessmen to salvaged exhibits and form the institution (and key destination for Chicago tourism today) called The Field Museum. You even see it on the labels of finely crafted bourbon bottles aspiring to the same civic legacy.

It’s true that the Columbian Exposition was soon salvaged, dismantled and major buildings victimized to fire – it’s construction was not set forth to be permanent. This is where the true nature of the world exposition can be best embraced by people in my profession. The White City was a city by look and physical attributes – but it was really an exhibit. Despite being the mother of all exhibits, it was still temporal in nature. It was an experience designed for a particular moment in time and doomed to decline on October 31, 1893 – the day after the fair closed.

Higenbotham seemed to have an understanding of this nature, writing:

“Let us hope that future generations will look back to this place with reverence, satisfaction and pride, as the spot where was laid the deep foundation of a monument that should mark the dawn of a new era….

“I have long sought for some consolation to justify the imminent destruction of our beautiful city, and I can find only this thought as comforting:

“Whenever a people have gained distinction by the creation of some specially meritorious work, have declared it finished, and then rested to contemplate its grandeur and magnificence… they have fallen into a condition of decay… It is better, therefore, for us to efface our work, and cease to delude ourselves with the thought that there is nothing for us, and those that come after us, to do. Let us rather hope that what we have done will live, as a stepping-stone to grander and more heroic efforts, compensated with richer and rarer fruits … if it has merit and excellence it will speak for and defend itself. Let us rather rejoice in the thought that what has been done is the culmination of a period in the progress of the world;

“…These buildings will disappear and mingle with our dust, but their glory will ever live, and continue to mark an era in the progress of civilization long after their creators have been forgotten.”

The goal of our work as exhibit creators is experiential in nature, not rooted solely in physical forms. We seek to connect our audience with a lasting impression – to make a positive, indelible memory with our guests. We imprint a moment in time – which is not far off from what the great collaborators and investors in the World Columbian Exposition sought after. Our goal is to carry the optimistic tone of progress forward to better Industry, to better craftsmanship, and we’d like to believe the betterment of society.

So with each visit to the Museum of Science and Industry, I know there’s a time that I’ll have to leave and upon departure a lasting glance back reminds me of the work to come, and the opportunity to do something even greater that the world has yet to see. To this I owe a debt of gratitude to those who made the faire possible.

1 Comment

  1. Lew K on August 23, 2018 at 10:05 am

    Loved the history lesson. Haven’t been to the MSI is a long time and I may have to revisit it soon!

Leave a Comment