Alan Trachtenberg


Chapter 07: White City

Trachtenburg shifts from looking at literary culture, the 'Fictions of the Real', to looking at the relationship between culture and business and politics. Chapter 7 analyzes the White City that was designed and built to house the World’s Columbian Ex position held in Chicago during the summer of 1893. Trachtenburg analyzes the ideological conflicts that took place in the development of White City and interprets the implications of those battles’ outcomes. White City stands in stark contrast to the p olitical insurgence that followed just one year later with the Pullman Railworkers Strike. The messages of White City continue to influence cultural thought in the late twentieth century.


The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago was attended by nearly 30 million spectators, many of whom were convinced of a hopeful future for American leadership of world-politics and world-culture. The Fair itself was declared, by New York senator Chauncy M . Depew, to be the seminal cultural event, not merely for the United States of America, but also for the world. America marked what man could and should become; White City was the pinnacle of this achievement, and in Trachtenburg's analysis, was both the close of an old order, and the genesis of a new.

White City implied a suggestion of how the future should be crafted in its demand for a partnership of art and industry, and was based on the work of Frederick Law Olmstead. Daniel H. Burnham served as the Director of Works, enjoying enormous auto nomy in making decisions about the design and arrangement of the City’s buildings. Burnham had several messages he wished to send through this design. One involved labor. Burnham wanted White City to be the model solution to the "problem" of labor. Trachtenburg points to the account of the labor involved in building the city given in Walter Wyckoff’s The Workers: An Experiment in Reality: The West (1899). Wyckoff found himself on the building crew during the course of a long journey across the United States in which he sought to gain understanding of the common laborer. His descriptions offer insight to the labor solution offered by Burnham and expressed in the design of White City. The City was a model for a utopia of labor in tha t it offered workers security from the world outside, security from each other, and a beautiful environment. The goal was to produce a labor friendly environment, ultimately for the purpose of boosting profit margins.

The Fair marked a departure from the world outside its gates, but it also suggested a new design for that same world. White City stood in stark contrast to Chicago, a city that seemed to have developed without any governing principles. Where Chic ago was utility only, White City was utility and beauty.

Architecturally, White City revealed the heavy presence of European-influenced New York architects and the near absence of Chicago architects. In his design of the future, Burnham placed architecture at the center of cultural order. The Court of Honor, at the center of White City, conveyed a monumental neoclassicism in the exhibition buildings of each of the important American manufactures. Surrounding the Court was a ring of US and foreign embassies that had a residential appearance. At the ou tside of the City was the Midway Plaisance, the location of exotic exhibits from around the world. This outer layer was essentially the carnival of White City. It was no accident, suggests Trachtenburg, that American business was at the heart of the Cit y, and the rest of the world was on the outside.

To make the important preparations for the fair, a World’s Congress Auxiliary was assembled, their motto: "Not Matter, But Mind; Not Things, But Men." The role of the Congress was to formally unite the worlds of imagination and object. The task of the Congress was to identify the areas of American life that illuminated that unity and the immediate needs of furthering unity. The collective intellect of the Congress was an early incarnation of the design of White City. The City itself e quated progress with the capitalistic production of goods. Edward Bellamy accused the Department of Works of being motivated by business and hiding that motivation behind American patriotism. The false pretense was given physical presence in "staff ," the white plaster that covered everything in an attempt to achieve the appearance of Greek marble and stone. The buildings that housed the exhibits of the Fair were themselves the images of art.

Trachtenburg suggests that the implicit goal of the Fair, the alliance of business, culture, and government, sparked praise from prominent cultural figures. Eugene V. Debs, who fought to keep the Fair open on Sundays so that working men and women could attend, felt that the Fair was a "tribute to labor," and a "secular church." Howells posited that the Fair’s vision of the future was, in fact, a vision of the ideal American past. Henry Adams commented that the Fair prepared h im to accept the rapid changes in society. The fair was a social experiment, and every social commentator understood White City to have significant implications for social development.


The design of White City offered a markedly elitist hierarchy of American society. Blacks were completely left out of the Fair. Frederick Douglas attended not as an American, but as the commissioner from Haiti. In protest, Blacks held separate c elebrations of their culture. Native Americans were used as exhibitors in the carnival of the primitive mode of life. The Fair placed whites at the governing center of utopia.

The Fair offered limited progress for women. Women were given a prominent exhibition space that was designed by Sophia Hayden, and were allowed to present numerous papers on the role of women in the future. While many reformers of women’s rights were present, it was the traditional domestic view of women that held sway in White City.

White City itself exhibited Labor’s presence in the Fair. Eugene V. Debs credited labor with the greatest role in creating the City. That support for labor would be undermined the following year with the Pullman Railworkers Strike. Labor was mov ed to anger after the railworkers suffered wage cuts and the government sided with business over the unions. The irony is that the design of Pullman, the residential space of the railway laborers, was a precursor to White City. S. S. Beman designed the town as a response to labor problem. When the economist Richard T. Ely visited the town to determine its success at addressing this problem, he found a beautiful neighborhood, much nice that what one would expect a collection of laborers to inhabit. But Ely felt that the town of Pullman was an unnecessary waste of capital. It offered aesthetic pleasure to the laborer in an attempt to elevate the laborer. The inhabitants of Pullman seemed to Ely to be immensely insecure. With the catastrophic events t hat occurred in Pullman just one year after the Fair, social leaders lost faith in culture’s ability to distill stability.


Trachtenburg asserts that Louis Sullivan was disappointed by the final design of White City. Sullivan felt that the City represented the ideals of the few, where he preferred a more democratic design. Sullivan doubted whether true architecture wa s possible when corporate business governed culture. He sought a "native organic" architecture, one that represented the newness of American society. Burnham’s designs were repetitions of classical architecture and offered nothing new to Ameri can creativity. But Sullivan differed with Burnham over more than style; they held opposing views of the function of public buildings. Both wished to celebrate business, but Sullivan understood enterprise from an earlier, more romantic perspective. The architecture critic, Montgomery Schuyler, favored Sullivan’s designs over the "insubstantiality" of White City.


The Roman appearance of White City carried implications of an imperial America, implications that would find substance in American military activity in Cuba and the Philippines in 1898. An imperial America would need centralization, and White City offered such a design. White City as Capital City offered a unity of "business, politics, industry, and culture," a unity that would be necessary as America stretched her arms across the globe. This unity seemed to prove the victory of elites over everyone else—women, blacks, laborers, foreigners, agrarians, et al. This elite formed the word Culture that would be governing power in American politics.

Eugene V. Debs found himself in court in 1894, charged with violating a federal injunction against the boycott of the Pullman Company. His attorney, Clarence Darrow, argued not only in defense of Debs, but also in defense of the Pullman employees’ right to meet as "brothers." True freedom, he argued, is the ability to respond as a group to the needs of the individual. The court would deny Darrow’s argument. The tensions between the culture of labor and the culture of the elite would l ay dormant for some time, but then reappear in the Depression and again in the social warfare of the 1960’s and 1970’s. As such, Trachtenburg uses White City and the events of the 1890's to foreshadow the many conflicts of the twentieth century.