Devil in the White City

I love Chicago. I just can’t imagine living anyplace else actually. I love the lake, the downtown, the size, the options for entertainment (including golf), the change of seasons…just about everything about it. It’s just a great, all-around city and one person that I have to thank is the world famous architect and city planner Daniel Burnham. If you read (or listen to) the Devil in the White City, you will understand why.

It is the story of a period in Chicago that runs from about 1890 to 1895. The backdrop is provided by the Columbian Exposition, which took place in Jackson Park from May to October in 1893. The story revolves around two men, Burnham, the leader of the Exposition, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who thrived in the Englewood neighborhood at the time of the Exposition.

Let’s talk about Burnham first. The dude was friggin’ intense. All Chicagoans – no, let me rephrase – all Americans should be thankful that he poured himself into architecture and city planning. The Columbian Exposition, while fraught with tragedy, certainly achieved great things. It put Chicago on the map and started the city on a path to greatness, it provided the impetus for countless innovations and social movements, and it entertained and educated the world. Plus, it made money, despite the fact the country was mired in a recession at the time. After reading this book, it’s not surprising that Burnham coined the phrase, “Make no small plans.”

As a Chicagoan (albeit transplanted), I am embarrassed that it took me this long to get through this book. So many important things happened in the time period that this book covers that I think it is a must read for anyone interested in the history of Chicago. Burnham, Sullivan, Adler, Root, the Rookery, Englewood, Jackson Park, Lake Michigan, the Windy City…it’s all there. Great stuff.

However, for all of the greatness exhibited by Burnham et al; there was pure, abject evil, to a level even more extreme, exhibited right down the street from Burnham. This H.H. Holmes guy was a sick, sinister mother #$%@*^ and makes Gacy look like a candy-ass. Enough said, its actually uncomfortable talking about it.

This is like two distinct books. One part feels like a history book and the other part feels like a James Patterson novel. Either way, it is a lot of good stuff and if you are a Chicagoan, you do yourself a grave injustice if you don’t give it a whirl.