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The Devil in the White City


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In 1890 Chicago, against stiff opposition from other American cities, was selected to be the venue for the planned World Fair to mark the four hundredth centenary of Columbus landing on American soil.  Choosing the city to host the fair was the easy part, now a committee had to be formed to  where in Chicago the fair was to be built, select architects, decide styles, do extensive landscaping, an amazing amount of building, create something iconic that stun the world in the same way that Eiffel's Tower at the Paris exposition the year before had - and all in two years.

 

Larson is one of those writers who could probably make the designing of a match box interesting, he has the knack of describing technicalities in a way that the laywoman can understand and be interested in without feeling that the matter has been over simplified, he's great at emphasising the human element involved in all these great projects, the frustration caused by the committee in charge dragging its feet over really important decisions, especially the vital one about exactly where in Chicago the fair was to the held.   To say nothing of the rivalries, the upsets, the passion for getting things done and doing them as the architect intended, the disappointments and how hard it was sometimes for a bunch of often egotistical architects to work together.  Then there were strikes, fires, appalling weather that kept on delaying work on constructing the various pavillions until it began to seem possible that there wouldn't be anything finished for the official opening day in October 1892.   And they still hadn't found the riposte to the Eiffel Tower.

 

Interwoven with the story of the fair and its organiser and Chief architect Daniel Burnham are two darker threads, that of a crazy Irishman who thought he would be raised to high position on the city council and of HH Holmes, a prolific serial killer who seems to have killed because he enjoyed doing it.

 

This book is a great read anyway, brilliantly paced so that it some places it almost becomes a page turner but I think that it's particularly fascinating for a non-American who basically knew nothing about Holmes or the Chicago Fair - the Fair's answer to the Eiffel tower came as a genuine surprise and I loved the incidental facts like Annie Oakley becoming famous as a result of the fair and the impact of the innovatory use of mass electric street lighting.

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Through Binker.  When I read The Promise, which is set around the Galveston hurricane of 1900 she recommended Isaac's Storm by Larson which was a terrific read, again combining fact with story-telling ability.  So I looked up his back list.

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I'm so pleased you enjoyed it, Viccie.  I had posted on it, but it was lost in the Great Disappearance.  I've liked everything by Larson that I've read.  He would, indeed, make the design of a matchbox interesting.

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    • By Biochemisty-n-Classics
      This was a neat book.  I like how he intertwined the stories.  I had no idea this World Fair had influenced so many things.  The passages about Holmes though really frightened me like straight up gave me nightmares.  It wasn't graphic super graphic it was just that those things really happened and that was just scary.  Especially because everyone around him was so naive and he was in a perfect place where people weren't really paying enough attention to crime or though so little of the cops they didn't bother to report it.
       
      On the flip side the architecture stuff wasn't kind of dry to me until they really got to shaping up the park.
       
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