Must Read: “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson

RTAblog_2013_0903_DevilInWhiteCityErik Larson’s best-selling story of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition details Chicago’s world’s fair – an event that was truly a fair of the world. The exposition had an incredible impact on American culture. It also had its own serial killer.

The Exposition Universelle of 1889 was held in Paris 100 years after the storming of the Bastille, the beginning of the French Revolution. The grounds of the 1889 world’s fair were just under a square kilometer.

The 1889 world’s fair was a huge success with more than twenty-eight million estimated visitors – at a time when rail travel and ocean voyages were state of the art. In addition to the huge number of visitors, the whole world was shocked by the work of Gustave Eiffel. At 1,063 feet tall, Eiffel’s elegant wrought iron tower overtook the Washington Monument to become the tallest structure in the world.

Not to be outdone, the United States held its own world’s fair. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was created as a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America. Larson documents the fight among American cities to host the fair and the almost impossible circumstances the planners had to overcome.


The exposition was held in Jackson Park, a 690 acre site. Chicago’s exposition was two and half times the size of the Paris exposition. Though the drawing above attempts to explain the Chicago exposition, the site was larger than many towns.

You really have to look through the photographs of the exposition to understand the overwhelming scale of the exposition. There were more than two hundred buildings constructed for the  exposition. The photos also show the incredible level of detail in every structure. One hundred and twenty years later, you can still see the pride in each exhibit from countries and companies all over the world.


Larson follows the parallel story of serial killer H.H. Holmes, who literally set-up shop just blocks from the site of the exposition. Weaving the two stories together gives the reader an appreciation for the planning and architecture challenges of the exposition plus the culture of the day.

Visitors to Chicago’s exposition were introduced to an array of architectural styles that would have required constant world travel to see had they not been collected in one place. They saw and experienced some technologies that were invented for the exposition – including a wheel designed by engineer George Ferris to rival Eiffel’s accomplishment in Paris.

The Chicago exposition was delivered through the tireless efforts and sheer will power of a Chicago architect named Daniel Burnham (pictured below). Burnham and his team of America’s greatest architects plus Frederick Law Olmsted created a small city planned and constructed at one time. It was a unique opportunity to create and execute a master plan larger than a square mile with a budget in excess of $22 million – more than half a billion dollars at today’s value.


Burnham’s work on the Chicago exposition drew much needed attention to the importance of large-scale urban planning. In addition to enjoying a remarkably prolific career as an architect, Burnham also worked as an urban planner for cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Manila.

Daniel Burnham was known for his statement, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.” Burnham’s work and contribution to urban planning was recently the subject of a PBS documentary titled, “Make No Little Plans”.

H.H. Holmes, the serial killer in Chicago at the same time of the exposition, is the more interesting story for Hollywood. Rumors of Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company taking an option on Larson’s story are common. DiCaprio is said to be taking the lead… which, despite his lasting legacy, is not Daniel Burnham.

The complexity of Burnham’s life and accomplishments may be better left to documentaries yet nothing compares to the power of your own imagination. Give Larson’s book the time it deserves; it’s a relatively quick read that opens a window to two other worlds. You’ll be surprised by the number of things that have their roots in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition… like our current electrical service and Disneyland.

To help stir your imagination, here’s a collection of images taken at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition from Arnold and Higinbotham’s Official Views of the World’s Columbian Exposition; the unaccredited Picturesque World’s Fair; and the Flickr albums from The Field Museum and The Brooklyn Museum.

This entry was posted in Design, Planning, Preservation and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *