The Gray City

—Loulou Alkurdi

The evening of October 8th 1871, a man stands on one prosthetic wooden leg and another of flesh, a cigar in his hands. The tip of the cigar burns a blistering red as he lifts it to his mouth; he exhales and a cloud of smoke fills the air in front of him. In moments the smoke will spread, the cigar will be disposed. A flick of a stray ember will light the ground. Sparks will ignite; a fire will grow, cooking the land that had been left dry from a lack of rain two months before. As the fire catches it consumes all in its path, and for two days the air will be filled with the smell of ash and the sounds of the fire hissing as it grows, followed by the screams of those losing their homes and lives to one of the greatest conflagrations ever. A Fire Marshal by the name of Robert A. Williams will pen the beast as a “hurricane of fire and cinders.” It’ll leave ashes of homes, buildings, and souls that once stood in its four-mile long, mile wide path.


Shakespeare once wrote that “Hell is empty, And all the devils are here,” but Chicago saw the flames as well. The city became an inferno as The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 cremated anything it touched, from souls to buildings; it was consuming, incinerating until a deluge of rain quieted the hellish flames. The devastation of the fire’s fury claimed the lives of 300 Chicagoans, and left one-third of the population homeless. Damages were estimated to be two million dollars during the era (roughly $39 million today); 17,500 buildings were turned to cinders and 73 miles of street destroyed. The center of the city was no more, but the hope for the future immediately burned inside the people of Chicago.

After the Great Chicago Fire, the city that was once flourishing became a soot mark on the map of America. It had only been six years since the end of The Civil War when the fire consumed the city. In attempts to regain face, Chicagoans made plans to rebuild the city with new fireproof standards, which meant replacing the wooden buildings with those of brick and mortar. The new building regulations were within reason yet reconstruction was made difficult, if not impossible, for many. Chicago was suffering from the fire’s aftermath, however within two years the nation would be quivering from a depression.

The only surviving building from The Great Chicago Fire of 1871—The Water Tower. (Photo by Abington Review Staff)
The only surviving building from The Great Chicago Fire of 1871—The Water Tower. (Photo by Abington Review Staff)

The Panic of 1873 swept the country after a series of bankruptcies hit railroads—the country’s largest non-agricultural employer. Eighty-nine railroads were closed, and 18,000 businesses followed, leaving the unemployment rate to hit a disturbing 14% by 1876. It wasn’t only the depression eating away the hopes of Chicago’s resurrection, but another fire during July of 1874 struck the city. Chicago was once again consumed by the blazes; this time 800 buildings and 60 acres were destroyed. The city had planned to rise out of the ashes stronger than it had been before, and the people of Chicago wouldn’t allow a depression or flames keep them from reaching their goal.

Brick, stone, marble, limestone, and mortar, the materials needed to build according to the new fireproof regulations, were out of budget for Chicagoans. Chicago found another material that would withstand the fireproof standards without sending citizens deeper into The Depression. Terra Cotta, an orange clay used during Tudor and Victorian times, remerged into the world of architecture. The architecture style known as the Chicago School of Architecture was created focusing on simplistic and cheaper designs, or lack thereof. Lacking ornate and intricate designs, the buildings that replaced those destroyed in the fire were practical with emphasis on vertical lines, and allowing the most possible natural light. The city was slowly reclaiming its status at the end of a troubled decade, although in 1886 Chicago once again made headlines.

May first, 1886 became a National Strike day for an eight-hour workday that spanned across America. The strike resulted in the protestors’ favor, however, few companies such as The McCormick Reaper Works refused to honor the shorter workday. Two days following the national strike, police opened fire on a group of rioters protesting against McCormick Reaper Works, resulting in several civilian deaths, and a large number of injuries. The national strike set off a chain of events, with the third and final marked in history as The Bombing of Haymarket Square. Civilians gathered to protest against the police’s use of violence during the previous day. However, when police attempted to calm the growing crowd, an unidentified person threw a bomb, which started an outrage. Chicago was once again a growing disaster; the bombing resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and one civilian.

The city had definitely seen better days, and much like the ashes that lay scattered after the great fire that burned 15 years prior, Chicago was covered with devastation. In order to reclaim their title as a powerful symbol of the turning of the century, Chicago went in search of the perfect opportunity to show the world its ability to overcome its struggles. Without needing to look far, the opportunity to host the 1892 Columbian Exposition World’s Fair, in honor of the anniversary of Columbus’ journey to America, provided the perfect display of power. The city’s leading benefactors entered a bidding war against New York City, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis, until the very day before the winning city was announced.

Chicago was given a second chance at reclaiming its place as a powerful city in America, and in order to establish their spot as a successful city they had to create the best fair the world had seen. The goal was to create a fair that would put Paris’ 1889 Fair to shame; they even had the ambition to create a steel structure that would make the Eiffel Tower seem to be nothing more than a metal scrap pile. With over 600 acres of land, and plans to build 200 new buildings, Chicago set out to raise the bar at which all world’s fairs would be held against.

Architects such as Daniel H. Burnham, the Fair’s director, boasted the idea of a Neoclassic America. They built architectural works of art that rivaled the Greek and Roman temples, not only to highlight America’s democratic successes, but also allude to the superiority of both Chicago and America. The 600 acres were covered with white plaster, imitation marble buildings and sculptures that revived the neoclassical era. The budget grew to a total of $30 million ($778,485,027 today). A workforce of over 10,000 people led by America’s most promising civil engineers and architects created the wonder that would be known as the White City.

Louis Sullivan, an architect rising to fame during the era, was commissioned to create two of the Exposition’s buildings: Transportation and the Concert Hall. Sullivan argued that the Classical and Romanesque architecture was dated and that the growing American style would better suit The Fair. He petitioned for the simpler styles, such as the Chicago School of Architecture, to be featured throughout the grounds of Jackson Park. Burnham rejected Sullivan’s ideas to change the scheme of the buildings and in retaliation Sullivan refused to work on the Concert Hall.

He focused only on the Transportation Building, which—much to Burnham’s disdain—featured a Roman basilica layout with a high centered dome topped with a cupola rising 165 feet into the air. Sullivan’s attempts to shed the classical façade that swept The Fair’s architecture failed as he was given a set of blueprints to abide by for each detail aside from the main entrance door. It was later explained by Frank Lloyd Wright, a student and assistant to Sullivan, that Sullivan had trouble with every aspect of the building aside from the doorway. The building spanned nine acres and housed multiple trains displayed during The Fair. Ironically, Sullivan’s Transportation Building became known as one of the best examples of Burnham’s ambitions to portray classical grand buildings with ornate details featured in each nook and crevice that surpassed those of the Paris 1889 World’s Fair.

One of the most prominent aspects of The Fair was The Court of Honor; built to neoclassical standards, and centered around a Venetian style Basin, The Court of Honor displayed the prowess of Chicago. The white buildings that surrounded the area gave the effect of supremacy, much like the Greek and Roman temples they mimicked. It was composed of a series of buildings, including The Administration, Agriculture, Mines and Mining, Manufactures, Electricity, Music Hall, Machinery Hall, Palace of Mechanic Arts, as well as a Peristyle (a column lined porch). The Court was scattered with statues of anything from native American animals to an obelisk. The Basin was also home to three electric fountains. Ornate Roman domes and arches, robust Greek columns, and glistening Venetian waters all brought together to rival Paris’ displays and buildings during the 1889 World’s Fair.

The creation of the 1893 (originally to be set in 1892, but pushed back due to a delay in construction) Columbian Exposition was a spectacle for the people of Chicago. They watched day by day as the wonder before their eyes grew from lines on paper to a city within their city. Yet a new storm was bound to blow through the progress being made; the winter of 1892-93 made working conditions difficult and deadly. This didn’t come as a surprise to the workers—700 had already been injured in work related accidents, as well as 18 deaths during the previous year of 1891. These occurrences raise the question; was the power coursing through The White City just as fraudulent as the makeshift marble adorning the buildings, which appeared to be cut from stone, that gave the city of Chicago an air of elegance?

Chicago would only see the Fair as the prestigious event that it needed to reestablish itself as an esteemed city of The United States. Gone were the ashes of the fire that ravaged the city, and the ghosts of police and civilian battles were put to rest. The city was finally climbing its way back to the glorified image of the 19th century, as related injuries and fatalities began to increase. One Chicago citizen was building his own architectural wonder on 63rd Street, where the death count would escalate.

World’s Fairs sponsored theme days for fairgoers. The above ticket is for Chicago Day at The Columbian Exposition.
World’s Fairs sponsored theme days for fairgoers. The above ticket is for Chicago Day at The Columbian Exposition.








A ticket for Manhattan Day at The Columbian Exposition.
A ticket for Manhattan Day at The Columbian Exposition.

It was named The World’s Fair Hotel, but later came to be known as The Murder Castle, as its benefactor referred to it. Dr. Henry H. Holmes had the building, which consisted of three stories, built to his own design. Burnham may have been The Fair’s chief architect, but Holmes managed to oversee a handful of his own workers as well. He hired and fired a new construction team for almost every room that was built in order to keep his true intentions hidden. It would have been quite clear to any builder that gas chambers, death traps, hidden doors, and a control room doubling as his bedroom weren’t for security purposes. Holmes constructed The Castle to be the perfect place to torture and kill victims; he even had easy access to the basement, which served as a final resting place for many that stepped foot into The World’s Fair Hotel.

It wasn’t a mystery why millions flocked to Chicago to see the wonders The Columbian Exposition had built and brought to the White City. Spectators came with the intent on seeing the new technological achievements, cultural displays of 46 foreign nations, and the latest culinary advances. They set out in search of what amazing things the world now had to offer, and just as they hunted for their mind-blowing displays, they were being hunted.

Holmes used the estimated 27 million fairgoers as his pool of future victims and lured what is guessed to be around 200 people to their deaths. He had spent a great deal of time and effort into constructing his murder castle and had no intentions of letting it go to waste. Whether he was seducing women, talking couples into reasonably priced accommodations, or even offering job positions to those who seemed desperate, he used The Fair as a hunting ground, picking his way through the exhibits that brought a new life to Chicago in search of lives to end.

Holmes maintained his scam throughout the duration of The Fair, ending more than a hundred lives that were doomed upon their entrance of The World’s Fair Hotel. Unfortunately for Holmes, The Columbian Exposition eventually closed its doors, ending Holmes’ six-month murder spree, forcing him to return to his criminal career.

Holmes relocated to Philadelphia where he made arrangements with a fellow criminal, Marion Hedgepath, to aid in an insurance scam–one of Holmes’ specialties. Hedgepath had a single role–to recommend an attorney who would be willing to act as the legal representation of the soon to be deceased Mr. Pitzel. The scam was flawlessly executed. Holmes, who was acting on behalf of Mr. Pitzel’s widow, was awarded $10,000 from the life insurance agency represented by Hedgepath’s attorney in court.

Holmes’ downfall came after the trial. When Hedgepath was never awarded his promised $500, he tipped off authorities from his holding cell in St. Louis, Missouri. Hedgepath offered the authorities information on an insurance fraud scam that targeted a Philadelphia Insurance Company, leading the police directly to Holmes’ door.

Holmes was found and pleaded guilty to around 200 murders, a series of insurance frauds, as well as other crimes. He was sentenced to hanging in Philadelphia, May 7th 1896.

Although Holmes may have earned his title as America’s First Serial Killer, he wasn’t the only one accumulating victims during The Fair. The workmen that lost their lives to the battle of building through perilous working conditions wouldn’t be the last to see their lives end at what was meant to be a glorious exhibition of America’s success. Maybe honoring the time Columbus spent murdering, plundering, and pillaging the lives and homes of thousands of innocent Native Americans wasn’t the best “achievement” to celebrate. Although it seemed oddly fitting that Chicago was the city to romanticize the death and destruction caused by one man who was fond of cigars. The first sign of The Fair’s downfall was on July 10th, 1893 when a fire took hold of the cold storage building.

The fire started in the cupola. What seemed to be a random and disastrous event was almost destined to happen from a mistake made months before the incident. During the construction of the building, there was a bare metal pipe serving as the building’s chimney; Burnham thought it was an unappealing sight. The 191-foot-tall pipe was covered by a wood frame and painted staff to better blend into the beauty of The Fair, making it prone to catching fire. Not only was the material chosen to cover up the pipe an unwise decision, but the structure itself was as well. They built a box around the pipe allowing room for the embers that would fall from the cupola down to the platform of the roof the firefighters would stand on. The cost of the beauty from The White City was fifteen lives lost on that day, adding to the total death count caused by The Fair.

The Fair that started 22 years earlier, when a burning ember hit the ground and made a spark in the people of Chicago, ended in a series of blazes. The Columbian Exposition closed its doors on the 31st of October 1893, however, on the evening of January 8th 1894, a fire started in The Casino spread through to the Peristyle and Music Hall. The last week of February saw the end of The Colonnade. Then again on the 5th of July 1894, a fire in the Terminal Station spread to Machinery, Administration, Electricity, Mining then to Manufactures, claiming the remaining Court of Honor buildings. The White City that had once struck awe in the eyes of fairgoers turned gray, reduced to very familiar scattered ashes.

Few structures remained intact after fires destroyed the 600 acres of Jackson Park. The Palace of Fine Arts, located north of the Lagoon, parallel to the North Pond, is the most memorable building that remains today. Since The Palace of Fine Arts was constructed to house prominent art from around the world, it was built in a secluded area and featured a fireproof design to ensure the safety of art. Unlike the buildings composed of wood and staff– which made them more susceptible to fire–The Palace of Fine Arts was constructed of brick and mortar, with only an outer façade done with staff. Known as the purest form of classism of all buildings constructed for the Fair, Fine Arts featured stone-carved columns of classical Greek female figures, known as caryatid columns, throughout the design of the porches, as well as a main entrance based off the 1867 Prix De Rome-awarded design by Henri Benard.

Following The Fair the Palace served as The Field Museum of the park till 1921. The building remained vacant and unmaintained for the following five years, until the essential restoration began in 1926. Although, the original staff façade would not be replaced with Indiana Limestone till 1933. The building remains in Jackson Park as one of the last true city souvenirs of The Fair, representing the most prominent aspects of the once White City it stood part of.

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