My book, Off The Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs, and Girls on Getaways comes out May 1. So, between now and then, I’m offering a glimpse of the 15 U.S. cities featured in the book. Here’s a preview of the Chicago chapter, entitled “The Tales of Two Architects:”
Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger says, “Architecture is one area in which we in New York truly do have a second city complex toward Chicago–not the other way around, as it is in so many other realms. And for all that has happened over the years, little has changed in the sense that those of us in New York, as well as the rest of the country, still have of Chicago as being the essential city of American architecture.”
But you don’t have to be a connoisseur of skyscrapers to understand Chicago’s pivotal place in architectural history and the innovative, risk-taking outlook that continues to make Chicago “America’s City.” Two books have generated sky-high interest in Chicago by combining the stories of the city’s architectural lions with juicy plots. The first, Erik Larson’s The Devil in The White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. The other book, Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, a novel of historical fiction, tells the tale of architectural genius Frank Lloyd Wright’s scandalous relationship with his client, Mamah Borthwick Cheney.
Each chapter in Off the Beaten Page includes an essay about a couple of books that create a theme or focus for your visit to that city, extensive reading lists, and three-day itineraries that offer ways to experience in person the books you’ve read and have fun in other ways, too. For example, the White City is long gone, but you can get a taste of what is was like by taking a tour with the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Wander Jackson Park, the site of the World’s Fair in The Devil in the White City, then tour Millennium Park, a modern-day bookend to the architectural innovation that began with that fair. Wherever you go, keep looking up.
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.
I was in Chicago last weekend for a writers conference and ventured out into the sweltering heat for a trip to the Chicago History Museum www.chicagohistory.org/
For anyone who has read just about any story that takes place there (Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and on and on), this museum reinforces that reading experience with relics, tours, special exhibits and more—everything from the Great Fire to meatpacking, the World’s Fair to a great collection of historic wedding dresses. My favorite quote on the wall there is from Mayor Richard Daly in 1968: “This is Chicago, this is America.”
Also, this is the city of the first skyscraper, and buildings so high that, in the words of Carl Sandburg, “They had to put hinges on the top two stories to let the moon go by.” The history museum and the Chicago Architecture Foundation offer boats tours on the Chicago River that blend architecture, history and a chance to be out on the water. http://caf.architecture.org/
Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.