Last weekend I spent a really cold but delightful couple of hours wandering around Jackson Park in Chicago. I’ve wanted to go there ever since I read Erik Larson’s bestseller The Devil in the White City. Jackson Park is where the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 took place and that’s the subject of Larson’s non-fiction book. In The Devil in the White City, he weaves together the stories of Daniel H. Burnham, the legendary architect responsible for the fair’s construction (and later the Plan of Chicago) and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor. He crafts the story so dramatically that readers often wonder if the book is a true story or a gripping work of fiction.
I’m not the only one who has wanted to see where the story takes place. “When I finished The Devil in the White City I got in my car and drove to Jackson Park,” says Mary Jo Hoag, who is now tour director for the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Devil in the White City tours. “I just wanted to see where it all took place.” So many readers have come in search of the White City that a host of tours have sprung up (given by CAF, the Chicago History Center, the Art Institute and other organizations) catering to readers who want to see first-hand where the plot thickened. Word has it that a movie version of The Devil in the White City is finally in the works, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as H.H. Holmes. That will create even more interest in seeing the real place where it all happened.
Almost nothing remains of the famed White City, though it was the greatest tourist attraction in American history, hosting 27 million visitors. Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted (who also designed Central Park) began to lay out the fairgrounds in 1890. It took three years and 40,000 workers to construct the fabulous Beaux-Arts style fair buildings and monuments…out of plaster. The historic fair opened to visitors on May 1, 1893. It closed six months later and within a year almost every structure from the fair was destroyed by fire, demolished or moved elsewhere. Only the Palace of Fine Arts, on the north end of Jackson Park, remains. The building is now Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. It’s sad that such beauty was so ephemeral; I’d love to have seen it. Hoag says that, at the time, the fair’s huge white buildings– illuminated by the amazing new technology, electric lighting–were so dazzling that people who arrived at night got off the
train and simply fell on their knees they were so astonished at the sight. One fairgoer described it as “a sudden vision of heaven.”
It’s good that at least the Museum of Science and Industry survives (as the Palace of Fine Arts it held some of the world’s most valuable art and was built extra strong and fireproof) because it gives a frame of reference for what the other buildings at the fair looked like. That, along with Hoag’s collection of photographs and her great descriptions, helped kick start my imagination as we strolled through Jackson Park. Over here the Agriculture Building…over there the gigantic Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building…a replica of the iconic statue of the fair, The Republic…. the Wooded Island where architect Frank Lloyd Wright took inspiration from the Japanese pavilion… Modern life creeps back in, though. Over there is the basketball court where Barack Obama used to shoot hoops with Michelle’s brother.
Looking north down the lakefront from the Museum of Science and Industry, one has the sense that though the White City is gone, one of the best legacies of the fair endures: the idea that cities can be well planned and beautiful places. Jackson Park and Chicago’s long string of parks and open lakefront (part of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago) that make this city so special are examples of that great idea. Still, I look forward to seeing The Devil in the White City movie and how its special effects bring the White City back to life.