They Made No Little Plans – Part II:

                         The Influence of Prairie Avenue on the 1893 Columbian Exposition


By Melissa Ehret



Almost 20 years after it was annihilated in the Fire of 1871, Chicago had achieved the impossible: Its civic leaders fought, finagled and funded for it to become the host city of the 1893 World’s Fair, the Columbian Exposition. With the influence of Prairie Avenue residents Marshall Field and Philip D. Armour, as well as Cyrus McCormick, Charles T. Yerkes and Gustavus Swift, Chicago prevailed over Washington, D.C., St. Louis, and archrival New York City.  Chicago’s wealthy and powerful helped to confer world-class status upon their city.

Now, they had to build the Fair so the world would come.

The designated location of this stupendous event left many in disbelief. There was no room within the city itself to construct a fairground of such magnitude. Chicago had just risen from the ashes not long ago, and no one at the time could have anticipated the city would one day be in the running for a World’s Fair.  Additionally, the city had grown at such a fast pace that traffic congestion plagued the downtown area.

The place deemed to have the most potential for a World’s Fair sat some seven miles to the south of Chicago’s business center. To the east was the shore of Lake Michigan. To the west was a gloomy series of bogs and marshes that would have to be drained. The landscape, known as Jackson Park, seemed devoid of inspiration and bucolic charm.


Jackson Park before 1891.

Prairie Avenue resident Daniel Hudson Burnham had been designated as Director of Works for the Columbian Exposition.  Since having designed a home on Prairie Avenue for John B. Sherman early in his career, Burnham had come a long way. He had become acquainted with and then married Sherman’s daughter. With his new wife, Burnham moved into the residence he created for his client. He designed four other homes on Prairie Avenue for prominent Chicagoans.  He partnered with John Wellborn Root, a Georgia native with a genius for architecture.  The firm of Burnham & Root then designed the Montauk Block, an engineering marvel that stood rock-solid in its bed of concrete and steel.  This revolutionary foundation was unheard of at the time, and Burnham and Root pioneered it in Chicago.


Daniel Burnham and John Root, Chicago’s legendary architectural partnership.


John Root was ensconced in planning the World’s Fair designs with his partner. He had also summoned a number of the foremost architects of the United States to participate. On January 15, 1891, the 41-year-old architect had welcomed at his home several East Coast architects who were working with him on the Fair. Later that night, he developed severe chills that quickly led to full-blown pneumonia. Despite the efforts of the doctor who tried everything within his power to save his famous patient, Root died within hours. According to the Chicago Tribune, Burnham is said to have yelled, “Damn, damn, damn!” upon hearing of the untimely death of his business partner and dearest friend.

Before Root’s death, he helped assemble a dream team of architectural talent, including Richard Morris Hunt, Charles McKim, Stanford White, William Mead, William LeBaron Jenney, Henry Ives Cobb, Dankmar Adler, Louis Sullivan and Solon Beman. Philanthropist Bertha Palmer chaired the Fair’s Board of Lady Managers, and insisted that the Woman’s Building be designed by a woman. Sophia Hayden of Boston won the commission. Frederick Law Olmsted, responsible for the gracious serenity of New York’s Central Park, was called in to conjure a wonderland out of a South Side marsh. 


Poster for the Woman’s Building.


In what must have been a nearly impossible effort to achieve consensus, the Who’s Who of architects agreed upon a neoclassical design for most of the Fair’s structures. With their domes, columns and legions of arches, the buildings would reflect the loftiest of ancient ideals, with what was then considered representative of Greco-Roman architecture.  Marching adjacent to each other along a highly stylized – and newly created – lagoon, would be structures representing Administration, Agriculture, Electricity, Horticulture, Fisheries, Machineries, Manufactures/Liberal Arts, Mining, and Transportation. All were painted in the same color, giving the Fair the nickname of the White City. An army of seven thousand men labored for two years on conjuring a fairyland from a bog, and making dreamlike temples rise from it. The Fair would boast a Peristyle collonade, Court of Honor and a Grand Basin. A statue of The Republic stood watch in regal style over the event. A fantastic fountain conceived by sculptor Frederick MacMonnies was believed to have been the largest in the world.


 Court of Honor.


Culture and civilization aside, the Fair needed other attractions to generate visitors of every level of society. The Midway Plaisance served as an antidote to the intensely idealistic inspirations propounded by the main buildings. Built on the Midway was a huge, astounding wheel that carried passengers as it slowly turned on an axis. George Washington Gale Ferris’ incredible creation generated revenue from some 1.4 million passengers during the nearly four months it was in operation. Other gyrating amusements, to the consternation of the Fair’s organizers, drew crowds: belly dancers were one of the Midway’s most popular exhibits.


The Ferris Wheel.

With the buildings and exhibits in place, the Fair was ready to welcome visitors. Who visited? Who was inspired? Who was murdered? All in the next installation.