Note:

This blog is now retired. My new site is at: Predictably Irrational.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

I have just finished this amazing piece of non-fiction. I loved it. It wasn't a fast read but by golly, it's worth your time if you are interested in the history of Chicago's 1893 World's Fair and H.H. Holmes.

As I mentioned, it's not a fast read, nor is it easy. It's deep although well-written. I think I was in the right mood for something like this. And I learned so much, not just by facts of the novel, but those "aha!" moments that hit me when I realized all that happened.

Chicago beat out New York and D.C. to host the World's Fair for 1893. This was a huge win as Chicago was a slaughter-town - hogs and cattle. The city reeked of blood, manure, as well as the sounds of squealing death reverberated throughout. There was nothing refined about Chicago then and to snag this amazing expo was a shock to everyone, even faithful Chicagoans.

And in comes Daniel Burnham, a man denied entrance to Yale and Harvard, who would be the head architect/designer of the White City - the Roman Classical buildings of magnitude that would become the World's Fair. Larson builds up the drama of putting this fair together in so little time...it's long but it gives the reader a lot of information of what developed out of this time, like incandescent light bulbs. It was just a few years earlier that the cow kicked over the lantern to bring on the Great Chicago Fire.

Another great influence is Frederick Olmstead, the pioneer of Landscape Architecture, whose vision for the Fair was to get away from linear plans and produce something breathtaking and artistic.

I love this quote from Olmstead, that brings me back to my work, where most folks want to do so much to an interface rather than actually simplify the flow for the intended user:
Let us be thought over-much plain and simple, even bare, rather than gaudy, flashy, cheap and meretricious. Let us manifest the taste of gentlemen.

The way they spoke back then, if it resembles any of their letters and writings, blows us away. I don't know if it is just the well-educated or the well-earned, but we still hold no candle to the elegance and eloquence of this time. And we think of ourselves smarter now than then?

Here are some examples.

Olmstead wrote often to his son, about leaving some of his work with Fair to a "trusted" employee, during the last hurried days before opening day:
I am afraid that we were wrong in leaving the business so much to Ulrich & Phil. Ulrich is not I hope intentionally dishonest but he is perverse to the point of deceiving & misleading us & cannot be depended on. His energy is largely exhausted on matters that he sh'd not be concerned with...I cannot trust him from day to day.

From Dora Root, the widow of Burnham's partner, John Root -who helped initiate the designs for the Fair - upon given a tour of it:
I find it all infinitely sad but at the same time so entrancing, that I often feel as if it would be the part of wisdom to fly at once to the woods or mountains where one can always find peace. There is much I long to say to you about your work of the past two years -- which has brought about this superb realization of John's vision of beauty -- but I cannot trust myself. It means too much to me and I think, I hope, you understand. For years his hopesa and ambitions were mine, and in spite of my efforts the old interests still go on. It is a relief to me to write this. I trust you will not mind.

Over time, we have just bastardized the English language. YMMV.

Along the story of the building of this magnificent fair is the story of H.H. Holmes.

H.H. Holmes would become the first documented serial killer. It is unknown how many he may have truly killed but at least nine are attributed to him.

He is what we now know as a psychopath but in 1893, this term was not even formed to describe a person. He was an anomaly of sorts...at least in their "modern" time of newspapers. No one was as evil as this man, who was handsome and endearing to nearly everyone he met. Even the prison wards who were to execute him were not looking forward to it, as they had been put under his spell.

It's a compelling read and I wanted to know nothing about the Chicago Fair, no Holmes until I finished the book. It is true: I knew nothing about the history of this fair. I didn't even know about the Ferris Wheel, until Tim said "Oh yeah, that's the fair with the Ferris Wheel". Oh yeah, I remember seeing pictures of the Ferris Wheel. But I didn't realize that George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. actually submitted his design for the Wheel *for* the Chicago Fair. Burnham had wanted something magnificent, more magnificent than the Eiffel Tower, which was built for the 1889 Paris World's Fair.

I was sad to realize, after reading most of the novel and cheating, by looking up info on wikipedia, that very little was left of this monumental city after the fair ended. It was open for six months - after a grueling two year process - to royalty, dignitaries and the common man...who many were documented as stating that it was one of the most amazing places they had ever seen and then once the fair closed? Nothing. Workers of the fair were no longer employed. The magnificent buildings were left to fall into disrepair. Over 200 buildings were built for the fair and today, only two of those buildings remain. It's amazing and heartbreaking.

I found it fascinating. I was attracted to the book because of the serial killer but once I got into the history of this fair, I couldn't wait to learn more about it. But then the serial killer portions were engrossing too.

A great great read that I recommend highly to anyone who would find this type of history fascinating, as I did (unbeknownst to myself :)).

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