Organized to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landfall in the New World, the World’s Columbian Exposition became a defining moment in Chicago’s history and the history of the United States as a whole.
In 1890, Chicago won the honor of hosting the World’s Columbian Exposition. In 1891, Jackson Park was selected as its site. Known originally as “South Park”, in 1881 was renamed “Jackson Park” to honor Andrew Jackson (1767–1845), the seventh president of the United States.
Olmsted and Chicago’s architect and planner, Daniel H. Burnham, with his partner John Wellborn Root, laid out the fairgrounds. It was designed to follow Beaux-Arts principles of design, namely neoclassical architecture principles based on symmetry, balance, and splendor. The historic World’s Fair opened to visitors on May 1, 1893. It was Root’s last project, as he caught pneumonia and died in January 1891, two years before the fair’s opening.
The white color of the material generally used to cover the buildings’ façades gave the fairgrounds its nickname, the White City. Many prominent architects designed its 14 great buildings. The exposition covered about 700 acres, featuring nearly 200 new buildings of predominantly neoclassical architecture, canals and lagoons. It included also an area for amusements that was strictly separated from the exhibition halls with carnival rides, among them the original Ferris Wheel, built by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. This wheel was 80 meters high and had 36 cabins, each of which could accommodate 40 people.
The exposition was an influential social and cultural event and had a profound effect on architecture, sanitation, the arts, Chicago’s self-image, and American industrial optimism.
Multiple tragedies marked the end of the fair. A smallpox epidemic that originated at the fair in midsummer spread throughout the city by early autumn. Just before the gala closing ceremonies were to be held, Mayor Carter Harrison was assassinated. Finally, shortly after the fair’s close, a fire swept through the fairgrounds, destroying many of the buildings.