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The Chicago Exposition still thrills more than a hundred years later


With its classically designed white buildings illuminated at night by brilliant electric lights, the lagoons, canals, innovative landscaping and a 264 ft. Ferris Wheel, the Chicago Exposition of 1893 managed to eclipse its Paris predecessor.

I first heard about The Devil In The White City on a trip to Chicago a couple of years ago with a busload of seniors, a.k.a. baby boomers. The tour guide recommended the best-selling book by Erik Larson and the title came up again in conversation with other book lovers since then. It’s the true story of Chicago’s efforts to win approval for the construction and staging of a world-class exposition that locals hoped would eclipse the Paris exposition famous for its Eiffel Tower. In the late nineteenth century Chicago was known primarily as hog town. Its slaughter houses were the premier tourist attraction and the city was a cesspool of dirty streets, unclean drinking water, raw sewage, poverty and disease. City fathers and local businessmen envisioned literally turning their city from a sow’s ear into a silk purse admired by the world.

After a great deal of early lobbying, the contract for design of the site and its buildings was awarded to Burnham and Root, an up and coming Chicago firm of creative architects and engineers with a few local buildings to their credit and a strong vision for the event. As a result of the inevitable political back and forth discord and slow approvals, the project start was delayed until a mere twenty-two months before the scheduled opening in May 1893. The design and construction team had less than two years to deliver a complex that would cost billions in today’s dollars. The challenges of unstable soil conditions, constant power struggles among team members combined with designing untried and untested structures in unpredictable and uncooperative weather conditions created an environment that seemed destined for failure.

Dr. Holmes’s innocuous-looking pharmacy and hotel/office building was the scene of a number of gruesome murders and became known as the Murder Castle.

In the midst of the drama of designing and building the great Chicago Exposition of 1893, another drama was unfolding a few blocks away. Unknown and undetected, an obscure Chicago doctor by the name of  Herman Webster Mudgett known primarily by one of his aliases H.H. Holmes was selectively murdering young women who flocked to the city in search of jobs and to enjoy the magic of the world’s fair. It was a crime even beyond the scope of Jack The Ripper. The city and its police force were so preoccupied with events surrounding the exposition they had neither the resources nor the interest in pursuing the dozens of cases of missing young women.

The Devil In The White City is a mesmerizing true story and I couldn’t put it down. The White City refers to the stretch of classically designed white buildings comprising the exhibition framed by the blue waters of Lake Michigan. As someone who worked most of my life in the construction industry, I found the challenges experienced by the designers and builders of the facilities particularly fascinating. Even though it happened more than one hundred years ago, the business problems weren’t that different from today. And back then, the builders didn’t have the modern equipment and methods of communication and technology that we possess today. The fact they completed most of the work in less than two years is a miracle.

The Chicago Exposition of 1893 managed to surpass its Paris rival with such innovations as the Ferris Wheel rising an astonishing 265 feet above ground, electric lights which for the first time completely illuminated an urban landscape at night, voice transmissions over long distance, the zipper (a Canadian invention) and Cracker Jacks™. The research carried out by Erik Larson in writing this book is detailed and fascinating. And be sure to read the extensive Epilogue which follows the main characters’ lives after the close of the fair. The combination of the challenges of building the exposition, overlaid with the true story of an undetected serial killer is just too juicy not to enjoy. I sure did.

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