Fair City on the World's Stage: The World's Fair in Chicago

More than a century after the World’s Fair graced Chicago—and a killer stalked its midways—reminders delight fans of bestselling The Devil in the White City.


In 1893, the world converged at the Chicago World’s Fair to show off its best features and brightest ideas in a specially built fairgrounds hugging the Lake Michigan shoreline south of downtown. The development’s gleaming buildings shone so brightly that they seemed to give off their own light, earning the fairgrounds an enduring nickname: The White City. Attractions housed within also dazzled fairgoers. Life-size reproductions of Christopher Columbus’ fleet. An Egyptian temple. A simulation of a Hawaiian volcano. A pavilion of German artillery. Electric lighting that offered a glimpse into America’s future. The fair proved to be a watershed moment for Chicago, emerging elegant and phoenix-like from its devastating Great Chicago Fire only two decades earlier.

Erik Larson’s 2003 novel-like nonfiction The Devil in the White City contrasted the minds behind the fair’s design—including famed architect Daniel Burnham and landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted—with serial killer H. H. Holmes, who used the fair to lure his many victims. Interest in the book persists, with a Leonardo DiCaprio-led series in the works at Hulu. While they wait for the premiere, fans can find fair remnants around Chicago today.

Traces of the Chicago World’s Fair

The Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker
Check out the famed Chicago company’s local take on the Christmas classic, set during the time of the Chicago World’s Fair. Herr Drosselmeyer is reimagined as a dashing fair executive; Marie (sometimes known as Clara) is the daughter of an immigrant sculptress (Nov. 30–Dec. 29).

Devil in the White City Running Tour
The 8-mile route takes a leisurely pace with stops at key locations featured in the book, including the site of Holmes’ macabre murder castle, now a post office. Guides share history and historical photos.

Museum of Science and Industry
Originally the fair’s Palace of Fine Arts, it’s the only structure built for the event that remains standing on the site. It now provides a home for the Western Hemisphere’s largest science museum.

Jackson Park
Relax in The Garden of the Phoenix, a Japanese strolling space on Wooded Island used by fairgoers for the same purpose. Olmsted’s design included the surrounding lagoons. Adorn your Instagram with the Statue of the Republic, a 1918 smaller-scale replica of the fair icon.

Original Fair Ticket Booth
Moved to a famous Oak Park home—the Frank Lloyd Wright-remodeled Hills-DeCaro House—a tiny ticket booth from the fairgrounds graces the building’s side yard.

Midway Plaisance Park
In a linear stretch connecting Jackson and Washington parks, an ice-skating rink with warming house and rentals marks the exact location of the fair’s Ferris wheel. Skate-walker equipment is available for beginners. The World’s Fair Ferris wheel (the first of its kind) was designed by a Galesburg, Illinois, native who wanted to build something to rival Paris’ Eiffel Tower, itself a World’s Fair marvel. The 264-foot wheel (demolished in 1906) would have towered over Navy Pier’s Centennial Wheel, which stands 68 feet shorter.

Antiquity and Intrigue

Rich histories and eerie tales go hand in hand at these alluring Chicagoland spots. As fall descends, celebrate with shivery trips to maybe-they’re-haunted? sites.

Old Joliet Prison  Creepy shrieks, creaks and rattles are said to reverberate around this once-abandoned Hollywood icon—a backdrop for The Blues Brothers and Prison Break. The Joliet Area Historical Museum leads tours of the old joint, a towering limestone fortress.

Graceland Cemetery  In the cemetery’s middle, see the glass-enclosed statue of Inez, a little girl killed by lightning. Folks say her ghost plays in the cemetery on rainy days. See graves of White City notables, including Daniel Burnham’s, on an island in Lake Willowmere.

Chicago Ghost Tours  Free Tours by Foot’s walking route hits the Congress Plaza Hotel (check out Room 441), Death Alley (a makeshift morgue for the Iroquois Theatre fire) and the site of SS Eastland (an excursion boat that overturned, killing 844 people).

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