When Chicago Went Classical

Andrew Saint

  • Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
    Bantam, 496 pp, £7.99, April 2004, ISBN 0 553 81353 6

Just two of the fabled world exhibitions of the 19th century are still remembered. They are the two with the best claim to have reshaped the culture of their times. London 1851 was a paean to industry and progress sheltered within a structure to match; its theme has been invoked in world’s fairs ever since. The other contender is Chicago 1893. After more than a century, the gleaming White City on the fairway at Jackson Park lingers in the American mind. Its image launched the international ‘city beautiful’ movement and transformed Washington. It has bequeathed its bright nickname to a Tube station and its shabby surroundings in West London. The most strapping of its sideshows, the Ferris wheel, has recently enjoyed a renaissance.

Yet over Chicago 1893, officially the World’s Columbian Exposition, hangs the shadow of Modernist disapprobation. If the Crystal Palace bellowed forward, the White City was the moment America cried back, lost its nerve, shed its integrity and originality, and renewed its servility to Europe in an orgy of domes, columns and fake-marble fronts. Here the march of Midwestern progress juddered to a halt. In the aftermath of the great fire of 1871, Chicago had pioneered the technique of the tall office building. But after the fair, no longer could any city claiming to be civilised allow its skyscrapers to pile one raw, steel-framed storey on another. Instead, they had to have a stone-clad base, middle and top, in attenuated mimicry of the temple-front. No longer could Louis Sullivan, that intellectual loner among American architects, coax businessmen into lavishing his vitalising, Emersonian ornament on their premises. Not only Chicago’s architecture, but the whole of American culture had been set back. A virus of respectability that was infecting a worn-out East Coast swept the entire fair, with ruinous consequences. So runs the old complaint.

Erik Larson will have none of this. For him, the risks, the fears, the adrenalin and the suffering bound up in the making of the fair prove the worth of Chicago’s culture, whether it faced forward or back. The main burden of his book is the tale of the fair, presented in pacy, personalised detail. Here then is the old parable of drive, grit and sweat accomplishing an American triumph over difficulties, with Daniel Burnham, the architect in overall charge of the fair, cast as chief hero.

But Larson also offers a dark side to the story of 1893. Around the time of the fair, ‘Doctor H.H. Holmes’ (the pseudonym of Herman Webster Mudgett) made away with between nine and 27 people, most of them women and children. Many met their fate at his seedy World’s Fair Hotel in the suburb of Englewood, close by the entrance to Jackson Park. A self-trained pharmacist, Holmes tickled credit out of tradesmen as readily as he charmed lonely women into serial bigamy. He had already built his Englewood building when the World’s Fair was announced. He promptly converted it into a hotel and installed a closed chamber, in the form of a kiln, in which women could be disposed of with quicklime, usually after being chloroformed. Sometimes Holmes just lured them to the chamber, locked them in, and turned on the gas.

Larson unfolds the saga of the devious Holmes in stops and starts, side by side with the progress of the fair. But an uninterrupted climax rewards the efforts of a dogged Philadelphia detective, Frank Geyer, who traced Holmes’s movements after he fled Chicago through the towns and lodging houses of the Midwest, towing a last pair of child victims with him and murdering them in Toronto. Cool to the end, Holmes produced a lying memoir from prison, with advice to his publishers on how to promote it. He was hanged in May 1896.

Has this lurid tale anything to do with the White City, or was it assumed that a book about the 1893 exhibition might not sell without some spicing up? Perhaps the latter. Yet the juxtaposition generates troubling thoughts and technical challenges. For instance, the strategy, ruthlessness and manipulation needed to make the White City happen, qualities the ebullient Burnham possessed to the full, were not dissimilar from those that helped Holmes perfect the art of murder. And the fair was not a victim-free venture: as with any construction project lashed up in a tearing hurry, there were avoidable fatalities in the race to completion.

Larson’s technique, teetering on the edge of ‘faction’, points the reader to human fallibility. The fair is copiously documented. We hear from the landscapist F.L. Olmsted’s letters about his neuralgia, the state of his teeth, his appalling sleep patterns, his dread of the long train journeys from Boston to Jackson Park and his horror at the trampling shambles of construction. We think we know what Burnham was overheard saying when his partner John Root died, because it was written down (later) by Root’s sister-in-law, the poet Harriet Monroe: ‘I have worked, I have schemed and dreamed to make us the greatest architects in the world – I have made him see it and kept him at it – and now he dies – damn!damn!damn!’ We learn that at the fair’s opening ceremony, Jane Addams, the Chicago social reformer, had her handbag stolen. There is plenty of detail about the late decision to build the Ferris wheel (America’s brilliantly mobile response to Europe’s static Eiffel Tower), the scepticism that greeted its unfinished state when the fair opened, and its ultimate triumph in rescuing the whole enterprise from bankruptcy; about Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Riders Show in full career; and about the troupe of Algerians who got the date of the fair drastically wrong and had to be set to work belly-dancing a year early.

All this as good as writes itself. But Holmes’s crimes were committed in secret, and those who knew him intimately died with few traces. Memoirs and court transcripts are a help, along with grisly anatomical notes from prison doctors and pathologists. ‘It is a marvellously small ear, and at the top it is shaped and carved after the fashion in which old sculptors indicated deviltry and vice in their statues of satyrs,’ one wrote of Holmes. ‘He is made on a very delicate mould.’ This is something, but it cannot raise the story to the pitch of immediacy Larson is after. Instead, he has to recreate events by extrapolating from the record. At the back of the book, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is claimed as inspiration for the method. Occasionally it stretches to Burnham’s thoughts and feelings, as a device for putting him on the same level as Holmes, but that is seldom needed. The discrepancy of the source material leads to unevenness, but never disturbs the narrative fluency.

The lasting value of Larson’s book lies in his reassessment of the Chicago World’s Fair. It is the more convincing for its immediacy. Four hundred years on from Columbus, the next task, the modern task for American civilisation, suggested itself to Burnham, his fellow planners and many of the fair’s visitors as one of reconciliation and discipline. Chicago had risen to wealth and pride on the back of rampant westward expansion after the Civil War. It had stolen the staging of the fair from under the noses of New York and Washington. Now was the time to harness post-bellum vigour to a loftier civic order. That is why Chicago went thumpingly classical in 1893, Larson shows, and why Burnham drew in leading talents from the East Coast to help him. Far from stalely imitating Paris, Florence or Rome, Chicago intended in time to surpass them and turn itself into the transcendent ‘city beautiful’ of American democracy.

There were few dissenters. Sullivan, allotted the Transportation Building behind the Great Court, a gigantic shed which he jazzed up with a rich ‘golden doorway’, was happy enough at the time. Only later, when economic depression (far more than the change in architectural fashion) caused his workload to fall off, did he grow bitter about the fair. Olmsted’s landscaping clashed with the boastfulness of the main buildings, but the need for contrast was well understood. His great contribution was the lagoon. At its centre lay a wooded island for peace and contemplation, reachable only by boat. The only structure on it was the Ho-o-den, a tiny Japanese temple built by Japanese craftsmen. It entranced the young Frank Lloyd Wright and set him imagining buildings of simple space and candid materials, worlds away from the Great Court.

The main response, however, was exhilaration at an exemplary grandeur. Testimony to the spell of 1893 comes from many visitors. None is more compelling than that of the quintessential East Coast Europhile and aesthete, Henry Adams. Even as he shuddered at the local coarseness, he underwent a conversion which surprised him. Beneath the dome of the most pompous construction of the lot, the Administration Building at the head of the Great Court, Adams sat pondering ‘almost as deeply as on the steps of the Ara Coeli’. Plainly, he fancied himself a new Gibbon. Yet his conclusions were not melancholic, like Gibbon’s, but progressive: ‘They talked as though they worked only for themselves; as though art, to the Western people, was a stage decoration; a diamond shirt-stud; a paper collar; but possibly the architects of Paestum and Girgenti had talked in the same way, and the Greek had said the same thing of semitic Carthage two thousand years ago.’ By contrast, when Mark Twain came visiting, he fell ill, stayed in his hotel for 11 days and left Chicago without seeing the fair. Maybe it was all too refined for him.

Not that Burnham and his colleagues expected or wanted to refine American robustness and ingenuity out of existence. The fair could only be a gesture, a shirtfront. The temporary nature of exhibition buildings, novel or historicising, means that they are never far from superficiality. The colossal palaces of the Great Court, run up fast with fronts of ‘staff’ (jute and plaster) on a steel frame and then painted gleaming white, are easy to caricature as a sham, and were exposed as such as soon as they came down at the end of the show. The most they could do was to influence public buildings and city centres, where in the same way architecture is largely about ‘fronts’, appearances and civic morale. There was never any danger of the fair undermining or obscuring the skyscraper, or challenging the long-term effect of technology on built form. It was more an attempt at inflection and redress, as architecture so often is in the face of material forces more powerful than itself.

In that aim the White City was strikingly successful. It touched every subsequent world’s fair for forty years, and not just in America: the Paris exhibition of 1900 was the first to pay it homage. Over and above that, it restated a principle set out long before by Jefferson, to the effect that an orderly, extrovert classicism was the right public expression for a disciplined American polity. It was with this programme in mind that Burnham and other veterans from the fair set out at the start of the 20th century to recast Washington and other cities. To this day, neither the tarring of classical styles with a totalitarian brush nor the eventual triumph of Modernism has quite destroyed their vision. The portico-fronted houses that continue to dot affluent American suburbs symbolise not just patriotism, but the dignity and responsibility expected of a mature democracy. In them the memory and the reproach of the White City live on.