The White City in Living Color: Watercolors of the Columbian Exposition
A topographer, theater designer, and self-taught artist from Rock Island captured the now-forgotten plumage of the 1893 World’s Fair.
Published Oct. 17, 2014, at 3:14 p.m.
Text by Whet Moser
The Columbian Exposition is enshrined in memory as the White City, thanks to its neoclassical aesthetics and the spectacular black-and-white photography of the event. But this view loses much of what made the fair great—in among the pale arches and columns was a riot of color.
And one of the Exposition’s greatest buildings, designed by one of its most influential participants, Louis Sullivan, was a cry against the dumb blankness, full of meaning: the Transportation Building, a wild, modernist, multicolor extravaganza with a massive golden entryway.
They went away, spreading again over the land, returning to their homes, each one of them carrying in the soul the shadow of the white cloud, each of them permeated by the most subtle and slow-acting of poisons; an imperceptible miasm within the white shadow of a higher culture. A vast multitude, exposed, unprepared, they had not had time nor occasion to become immune to forms of sophistication not their own, to a higher and more dexteriously insidious plausibility….
There came a violent outbreak of the Classic and the Renaissance in the East, which slowly spread westward, contaminating all that it touched…. Thus Architecture died in the land of the free and the home of the brave….
The damage wrought by the World’s Fair will last for half a century from its date, if not longer. It has penetrated deep into the constitution of the American mind, effecting there lesions significant of dementia.
Sullivan’s spectacular contribution was preserved in all its patriotic plumage through the only means available at the time, in the watercolors of Charles Graham, an illustrator for Harper’s and the “Director of Color” for the Fair.
Graham came by his talents in the American manner: self-taught, free-style, making the record in his own way. Born in Rock Island, Graham developed his skills first as a topographer for the Northern Pacific Railroad, then painting theater backdrops in New York and Chicago. He traveled the West, capturing Yellowstone and the trans-continental railroad; and, coming home, the color within the White City in From Peristyle to Plaisance, or, The White City Picturesque.