Finally, a book about urban planning and serial killing

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

The Devil in the White City; Erik Larson, 2003

Erik Larson tells the parallel true stories of the making of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the machinations of a psychopathic serial killer just a few blocks away in what may be my favorite non-planning planning book. Chapters alternate between light and dark, as they narrate Daniel Burnham’s crafting of the event to rival the French Exposition Universelle of 1889 with its show-offy Eiffel Tower, and Henry H. Holmes’ construction of his demonic World’s Fair Hotel with its underground gas chamber.

Both men were handsome, skilled, and obsessed. This book illustrates the ways in which they both embodied the uniquely American dynamic of the time. It is part Chicago history, part Burnham biography, part tutorial on the engineering of tall buildings on gumbo soils, and part grisly murder.

The Chicago Fair, otherwise known as The World’s Columbian Exposition, made a big impression that has lasted to this day. The world’s first zipper was unveiled there, along with beef bouillon, Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix, Juicy Fruit gum, Cracker Jack, Shredded Wheat, Pabst Blue Ribbon, pay toilets, the electric chair.

The City of Chicago needed that fair. At the time, Chicago was thought of as a brawny stockyard town, good at manufacturing and commerce, but lacking in culture and social skills. In the day, Jacob Riis declared Chicago to be filthier than New York City in even its worst seasons. And he would know.

Frederick Law Olmsted played a staring role in the fair’s creation. He was at initially reluctant to join the team as a landscape architect, but chose to participate after considering how it could bring credibility to his profession-credibility that was badly needed. At the time, he was designing the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, and fending off threats to his original vision of New York’s Central Park:

“Suppose,” he wrote to architect Henry Van Brunt, “that you had been commissioned to build a really grand opera house; that after the construction work had been nearly completed and your scheme of decoration fully designed, you should be instructed that the building was to be used on Sundays as a Baptist tabernacle, and that suitable place must be made for a huge organ, a pulpit and a dipping pool. Then at intervals afterwards, you should be advised that it must be so refitted and furnished that parts of it could be used for a court room, a jail, a concert hall, hotel, skating rink, for surgical cliniques, for a circus, dog show, drill room, ball room, railway station and shot tower. That is what is nearly always going on with public parks.”

While Burnham was driven to create an attraction that would “out-Eiffel Eiffel,” Olmsted was aiming for “a mysterious poetic effect” through landscape architecture. He insisted that, in Chicago, “simplicity and reserve will be practiced and petty effects and frippery avoided.”

George Washington Gale Ferris, a Pittsburgh engineer, contributed his famous wheel: “What I’ve done is taken the Eiffel Tower, put it on a pivot, and made it move.”

Elias Disney helped to build the White City. It is widely thought that his son, Walt, was inspired by its grand aesthetic. The fair wielded a lasting influence in other unexpected ways. L. Frank Baum and W.W. Denslow drew inspiration from it in the creation of their city of Oz. Frank Lloyd Wright was taken by the Japanese temple on the Wooded Island and it shows in the evolution of his Prairie residential designs.

Many thought the Court of Honore the most impressive aspect of the White City. Some fair goers were so moved, they wept upon entering it. Burnham, who some referred to as an “aesthetic despot,” arranged the large buildings, neoclassical in design, around a central court with all the cornices set at the same height and all painted in soft white.

Over all, the fair had a profound effect on how Americans perceived their cities and their architects. Architectural greatness was made accessible to everyone, not just the rich architectural patrons. According to statesman, Elihu Root: “The fair led our people out of the wilderness of the commonplace to new ideas of architectural beauty and nobility.”

Larson articulates the same conclusion, “The fair taught men and women steeped only in the necessary to see that cities did not have to be dark, soiled and unsafe bastions of the strictly pragmatic. They could also be beautiful.”

William Stead recognized the power of the fair to inspire the elevation of American cities. As a result, he wrote If Christ Came to Chicago, a book often credited with launching the City Beautiful movement.

As his work on the fair concluded, Daniel Burnham found himself in demand as civic leaders across the globe wanted the same for their cities. He created plans for Cleveland, San Francisco, and Manila, and he worked to resuscitate and expand L’Enfant’s vision of Washington D.C. It was Daniel Burnham who is responsible for the removal of the freight tracks and depot from the center of the Washington Mall.

I must admit that I am a little spoiled, having grown up in Chicago, with its ribbon of lakefront parks, Michigan Avenue’s Miracle Mile, Soldier Field and the Field Museum, all designed by Burnham. When I moved away, I was surprised to learn that not all cities have these grand attributes.

But the fair had its critics. Louis Sullivan condemned its influence on architecture. He felt it doomed America to another half-century of imitation. He called the fair and its neoclassical architecture a “contagion,” a “virus,” a form of “progressive cerebral meningitis.”

Frank Lloyd Wright joined Sullivan in his harsh criticism of the fair, and as Wright and Sullivan grew in esteem, Burnham’s influence faded.

More recently, architecture historians have come to see the opposing sides as both right: “The fair awakened America to beauty and as such was a necessary passage that laid the foundation for men like Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.”

It may seem strange that Larson would choose to expound on the Chicago World’s Fair and the gruesome story of one of America’s most prolific serial killers in the same book. At least it seemed strange to me. He does have a point, though, that they are both different sides of the same coin. Not everything was grand.



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