The World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 was one the greatest fairs ever assembled. More than 27 million people visited the fair and its 60,000 exhibits.
The American architect Daniel H. Burnham planned the White City, as it was called. It was the first large area of Chicago to be illuminated with electric lights. The neoclassic buildings were gleaming white. The lagoons were filled with lovely blue water that reflected the magnificent white buildings, doubling their impact on visitors. Moving about the fair grounds on gondolas provided relief for tired feet.
The landscaping provided beautiful green vistas. The landscape architect of the Exposition was none other than Frederick Law Olmsted, the chief architect of New York's Central Park as well as great parks in other cities. In a tribute to Olmsted at the fair, Charles Eliot Norton said Olmsted was a great artist who gave expression to the "life of our immense and miscellaneous democracy."
Was this a vision of the future of cities in America? Its builder, Daniel Burnham, thought so. He saw the design of the buildings and grounds as a challenge to future city planners. City transformation was so important, Burnham thought, it would be the "third great debate in our country's history" after the American Revolution and the Civil War.
Yet, the Exposition was a temporary flight into a possible future city. Visitors to the fair grounds in January 1894 saw the formerly great white buildings dingy with coal dust. Plaster peeled from their facades. Windows were shattered. Chicago city officials hired wreckers to tear it all down. But before they could do so, arsonists in the summer of 1894 set the White City on fire. More than 100,000 Chicagoans gathered near Jackson Park to watch as the formerly magnificent buildings burned to the ground in a colossal blaze that lasted for hours.
Within a few years, however, many of the same people who helped build and design the great fair, including Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted, helped launch the City Beautiful Movement, which carried forth in new ways the ideas of improving American cities and making them more livable. This movement, which peaked in the first decade of the twentieth century, never completely transformed any American city, but it was an important force in improving the outward beauty of cities (aesthetics) and also improving important practical matters that did not show, such as sewage and sanitation systems (infrastructure).
City Beautiful planners sought to promote civic pride while bringing the city and nature into better harmony. Cities from Boston to Kansas City to Seattle all benefited from these new urban planners who designed parks, civic centers, wide boulevards, and improved roads and highways.