Sunday, April 3, 2011

The DBS Book Corner - The Devil in the White City

I'm an avid reader, but in recent years it is more magazines, newspapers, and work journals. I wish I had more time to read books. DB~ is a voracious reader and can finish a 300 page book in a day...she's basically a speed reader. Frequently I ask her if she remembers what she reads.

Anyway, DB~ got a book at Barnes and Noble that she had heard was really good called The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. I had heard about it as well, as Leo Dicaprio has bought the rights to and will be the Executive Producer and lead role of H.H. Holmes (scheduled to open in 2013). The book juxtaposes two stories on parallel tracks relating to the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893.

The first story is the tale of famous architect Daniel Burnham and his herculean efforts to oversee, create, and build the World's Fair. Chicago had the fortune/misfortune of following the World's Fair in Paris, which unveiled the Eiffel Tower for the world. It was widely hailed as a masterpiece of a festival. Chicago fought off New York for the right to host the festival, but back in 1893 Chicago was viewed as a cow town of uncultured hicks. Sewage flowed into the rivers and black smoke filled the streets. The air was thick with the smell of butchered cattle and hogs. Burnham (and his artistic partner John Root) were selected to oversee the festival and supervise the works of a group of 6 other architects. Burnham basically built a city within a city, complete with its own police force, garbage collection, and fire department. It built buildings higher than had ever been attempted, all for a festival only lasting 4 months. It had canals, islands, and a roadway system...all built upon a desolate wasteland of a park space on the edge of Lake Michigan.

Chicago only had 2 years to design and construct the World's Fair. Burnham's vision was called the White City, due to all the buildings being painted white for effect. The White City was beset by design delays, material shortages, labor strife, and terrible weather. But somehow it all got done and was, overall, a success. The Chicago World's Fair "Eiffel" moment was the Ferris Wheel, designed by Pittsburgh engineer George Ferris. It was over 200 feet high.

The second story in the book revolves around a young man new to the city, named H.H. Holmes. Holmes' stated profession is a pharmacist, but young women have a habit of disappearing around him. Holmes eventually builds his own building that occupies a full city block and uses it to scam people out of money (pharmacy, hotel, storefronts) but also set up a murder hotel that he uses to dispatch at least 70 people, most of which were young, blond women.

The book is a fantastic look at what life was like, not only in Chicago, but in America during 1893. Everyone wrote letters filled with flowery language. High society dinners had 12courses, broken up with cigars and cognac. Hygiene was hit or miss at best.

As an engineer, I got a lot out of this book, especially the struggles with schedules and how you can never miss a deadline. Not only were the construction schedules insane, but they were working with machinery that is primitive by today's standards and labor that was uncooperative and unreliable at best.

There is no way that I could have done what Burnham could have done. He had the weight of the world on his shoulders. He had to not only represent Chicago (especially in the eyes of New York), but also the United States in the eyes of the world. He had to deal with deaths of those close to him over the course of that two year period. He was isolated from his family and became obsessed by the fair. In much the same way, but less murdery, that Holmes was obsessed with his work.

Highly recommend if you like history, architecture/engineering, psychopaths, or just a good ol' fashioned book.

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