Building A World’s Fair

I’m in the middle of reading Erik Larson’s book The Devil in the White City (soon to be a major motion picture, according to the sticker on the book – Wikipedia tells me that Leonardo di Caprio will star) and it’s completely fascinating. A scarily quick read as well, considering that it is a history rather than a novel. Essentially, the book tells the combined stories of Daniel Burnham, who was responsible for co-ordinating the design and building of the World’s Columbian Exposition, better known as the Chicago World’s Fair, and the serial killer H H Holmes, who used the Fair to find victims – and also successfully cover up his killings. For this post I want to concentrate more on Burnham, as he was a character I previously knew nothing about, and his creation and development of the celebrated White City.

This isn’t the first book I’ve read that had the Chicago Fair as a backdrop – Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day is also set against the World’s Fair, but it was a very difficult read and didn’t inspire me to look further into the subject. Because the reader comes in at the beginning of the process, when Congress award the Expo to Chicago to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ discovery a mere three years later, the race was on. And a race it was – three years is not a lot of time to build a house, let alone a mile square theme park! And as Paris had only recently had an extremely successful exposition of its own, for which the Eiffel Tower was built, Chicago was intent on doing better. It was going to be an awful lot of work.

We meet the characters who were instrumental in designing and building the structures that would attract the world’s attention in July 1893; we are invited to explore the particular problems of constructing any building in the particularly Illinois geology; we witness the rivalries and infighting between the various architects. There are accidents, deaths (most notably of Burnham’s partner, John Root), economic decline and the challenge of finding a novelty to “out-Eiffel Eiffel” all the way through. And masterminding all of this, keeping it on budget and on time is Daniel Burnham, one of Chicago’s most noted architects.

In the end, they settled on the Ferris Wheel. Worth noting that the London Eye can only date its ancestry to 1893.

If anything, this part of the book reminds me a lot of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, albeit with considerably less objectionable characters. It seems that I have a secret love of architecture and landscape. Perhaps in a past life I was a town planner – heaven forbid I should consider it now, although I’m always complaining about the estates of “bug hutches” that seem to be in constant development in my area. Reading this has just made me feel even more of a know all on the subject, if I’m going to be honest. Just as well I tend to keep my opinions to myself!


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