Thine Alabaster Cities


(Click here to go to the first entry in this blog series on the Gay ’90s to read the material in sequential order.)

many buildings

Can you guess the location of the city above, with its gleaming, massive, classical “buildings for the ages”? Is it somewhere in Italy or France? Or maybe Austria?

Let me give you a hint.

Remember the words of the last stanza of America the Beautiful?

Oh, beautiful, for Patriot dream that sees beyond the years.
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears …

Alabaster is a valuable substance (most typically white) often used for marble-like carvings, like this delicate alabaster lily.


So the word alabaster is sometimes used to describe something that is pure white like finest white alabaster. An alabaster city would be one that looks just like that picture of a city above … pristine and white, glowing in the sunshine.

In fact, indeed the alabaster city in the picture is the very one that inspired Katherine Lee Bates, author of America the Beautiful, to write the words in that stanza! She had ridden on a train past this alabaster city on the trip out to the American west during which she wrote the song. She had passed “amber waves of grain,” and “purple mountains” under spacious skies. But before that, she passed by the alabaster city, and later explained that it was what inspired her to speak of alabaster cities for America that were tearless.

So if you’d like to make a pilgrimage to that Alabaster City today, what part of the USA would you travel to?

Don’t bother looking. It doesn’t exist any longer. In fact, it wasn’t built “for the ages.” It was built to last … six months!

The picture is of a section of the 1893 Columbian Exposition/World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, the crowning jewel of the Gay 90s in American history.


poster nations

The grounds of the Fair were dubbed “The White City” by publicity at the time because indeed all the architecture looked to be made of white marble. As did the vast number of statues scattered throughout the grounds, such as this massive installation that represented the “Ship of State.”

ship of state

Have a look at a few more scenes of this fabulous city.


But the reality was that almost all the architecture and statuary you see above wasn’t made of marble, or any other costly material. Nor was it substantial or lasting.

Almost all of it was made of cheap wood and/or iron framework covered with a material—almost like a fancy version of papier-mâché—called staff. The staff used at the Fair was made out of plaster of Paris mixed with a binding material, usually hemp fibers. (Yes, the fibrous material that comes from Cannabis—marijuana—plants.) Back in those days, staff might also include horsehair or corncobs.

After drying out, staff could be carved and sawed and painted or coated to look like a variety of materials. In the case of the White City it posed very effectively as marble when painted white. In fact, the same material was used in in a similar way in the early years of Hollywood to make “sets” of splendiferous architecture and statuary for historical movie scenes, such as this one of ancient Babylon featured in the 1916 D.W. Griffith 3.5 hour extravaganza, Intolerance.


Yes, staff looked like marble to the untrained eye. But it wasn’t intended to last for millennia like marble. The Fair ran from May to October 1893. So the 200+ magnificent buildings that made up the White City were finished in time for Opening Day May 1, bedazzled people for six months, and then were retired on October 31.

The White City soon became a ghost town, and eight months later, many of the splendiferous buildings were destroyed in a fire that swept the empty fairgrounds. And a hundred years later, you can drive by the location and have no clue it existed. The area is now Chicago’s Jackson Park. The only obvious reminder of the glory days of the spot is a statue.

jackson parkThe Statue of the Republic is a 24-foot-high (7.3 m) gilded bronze sculpture in Jackson Park, Chicago, Illinois. The statue was built in 1918 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago and the Illinois statehood centennial. The statue was funded by the Benjamin Ferguson Fund. which commissioned Daniel Chester French, the sculptor of the original 65-foot-tall (20 m) statue that stood on the grounds of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, to sculpt this smaller replica. Henry Bacon, architect of the Lincoln Memorial, designed the pedestal for the 1918 Republic.

The original statue stood in front of the Court of Honor at the World’s Columbian Exposition. However, in 1896, the original 65-foot statue succumbed to a fire, destroying it. The current statue stands on the site of the Exposition’s famous Electricity Building.

The statue is widely known in Chicago by the colloquial name of the “Golden Lady.” [Wiki]

You might say that the 1893 Columbian Exposition was a perfect metaphor for its time in history, the “Gay 90s.” A façade…on an illusion.

In the next entry in this series we’ll take a closer look at the nature of that illusion.

Fair Enough

This entry was posted in Gay Nineties and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Thine Alabaster Cities

  1. George Dewey says:

    Kinda of a large scale grandeous white wash.

  2. William Lussenheide says:

    This exhibit would still be amazing today, 120 years later!

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