Remembering the White City

CaptainCreeper recreates a lost wonder of the world

What do the electric chair, Shredded Wheat and a sculpture of a knight made of prunes have in common?

All three made their public debut at The Chicago World’s Fair - also known as the World's Columbian Exposition - an amazing showcase of American innovation that took place in 1893. It’s hard to really understand what a huge impact it had at the time. Admittedly, the Prune Knight hasn’t stood the test of time - but other exhibited inventions, like zippers, dishwashers, picture postcards, the Ferris Wheel, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and the spirit of American exceptionalism surely have. Even the process of constructing the fair itself inspired all kinds of innovation, including the first use of spray paint.

A staggering 27.5 million people visited the fair during the six months it was open - at a time when the population of America was only 65 million! No small part of the attraction was the setting itself - vast neoclassical buildings set amid bucolic scenery, reclaimed from bogland and beautifully landscaped. Despite their size, the buildings were designed to be disassembled and removed after the fair’s closure, leaving little evidence of its grandeur for future generations.

But now, for the first time in 124 years, you can explore them for yourself - all thanks to CaptainCreeper’s meticulous recreation. The project took a little over a fortnight (quite a startling contrast to the epic undertaking of constructing the actual fair), and, remarkably, is almost entirely CaptainCreeper’s work alone. “I had some help on the Statue of the Republic by a builder named Schlumpfii,” he says.

The idea came to him while reading The Devil in the White City - Erik Larson’s riveting account of the fair’s troubled construction and other, more grisly, events of the time.

“I Googled some images of the fair and buildings made for it and found them to be gorgeous,” says CaptainCreeper. “To actually recreate the buildings I started with the general layout of windows, doors and details of the building and worked my way up. As great as Google is for showing buildings, I had trouble finding enough pictures of all the buildings. To address this problem I found a map in the back of a book showing the entire fair. This allowed me to see the buildings' shape and the general layout of the fair from an aerial view. Outside of this I watched a few videos of 3D recreations made in a modeling software.

"I also did some extra research on the architects behind the fair - the landscape architect Frederick Law Omsted and the mastermind behind the fair Daniel Burnham. Daniel Burnham soon became my favorite architect after looking at some of his other work outside of the fair like the Flatiron building, the Chicago Union station, and the Rookery building.”

Surprisingly, at the time of the fair’s conception, the chosen style was thought to be a little quaint by some of the more fashionable New York architects - though we can put this down to a certain amount of professional rivalry. With the benefit of hindsight, the buildings are stunning architecrual feats.

“Personally, I've always loved the style and have created a few neoclassical buildings in the past,” says CaptainCreeper. “I can see why the style would be called quaint, what with its influences from Greece and Roman architecture, but to me it’s a great combination. I imagine the height of structures with all that detail would be enough to leave people in awe. I most enjoyed all the small statues that can be seen in the structures of the fair and many other neoclassical buildings - it’s amazing how much they added to the overall building while being so small.”

Reconstructing the buildings also gave CaptainCreeper an understanding of just how ambitious a project it was to build on this scale - something that is not as easily conveyed in descriptions of photos of the fair. “It's amazing how the fair came to be in such a short period of time on a very tight schedule!” he says.

And not only was the fair’s construction a project of unprecedented ambition - it was beset by catastrophe throughout: smashed apart by several storms, set on fire, plagued by labour disputes and the untimely death of some of the project’s leaders. It’s doubly amazing that it ever got built.

A view of the World's Columbian Exposition, looking past the Statue of the Republic, affectionately known as Big Mary, towards the Administration Building.

“Other than gaining insight into the size and ambitious nature of the Fair, I learned about some of the difficulties or where there was potential to be an issue,” says CaptainCreeper. “Although there were no storms or fires destroying anything, I did see the challenge in making the dome on the Administration Building and the roof on a building as massive as the Liberal Arts Building.”

Today, you can still visit the Fair’s Palace of Fine Arts, now converted into Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, but to get a sense of the full scale and beauty of the World’s Columbian Exposition - probably one of the greatest wonders of engineering and architecture the world has ever seen - your best bet is to visit CaptainCreeper’s build. Not a bad accolade to have for a fortnight’s work!