The Devil in the White City Review, Chicago Architecture Tour

The Big Court of the White City

With the author's permission, the Chicago Architectural Foundation has developed a tour that enhances and extends the experience of reading Erik Larson's "The Devil in the White City".  This bestselling, spellbinding book explores two remarkable events: the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the emergence of America's first publicized serial killer. Tours are offered on select Fridays and Sundays and our tour was so well attended that a third bus was added to the two already planned.  So, on a perfect spring day, following a picture introduction, I stepped on the bus and back one hundred and fourteen years to the time of the White City.

The tour departed from the Chicago Architecture Foundation located in the Santa Fe Building at 224 South Michigan Avenue at Jackson Boulevard.  Walking into the Museum Shop where tours begin, I wanted to buy one of everything-clever gadgets and household items, as well as beautifully designed decorative pieces and clothing.  Passing through the shop, we entered a room where we saw a power point presentation designed to familiarize the group with the people and events surrounding the Columbian Exposition.

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Our Tour Guide, Docent, Brent A. Hoffman, set the scene.  The ancient tradition of trade fairs in the middle ages, inspired the London Fair of 1851, the beginning of modern world's fairs. The Columbian Exposition was planned in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' discovery of the New World for 1892, but didn't get underway until 1893.  Chicago won the honor of hosting the fair over New York City, Washington, D.C and St. Louis, Missouri.  "The fair had a profound effect on the people's lives at the time and in turn, people's changing lifestyles during that period, shaped the built environment", said Lynn Osmond, Chicago Architecture Foundation President and CEO.  This effect influenced Chicago's development affecting architecture, the arts, Chicago's self image and even American industrial optimism.

The Beaux Arts Building that became the Museum of Science and Industry

The exposition covered more than 600 acres, featured nearly 200 new buildings of European architecture, canals, lagoons, and people and cultures from around the world.  Over 27 million people (about half the U.S. population) attended the Exposition during the six months it was open.  It became a symbol of American Exceptionalism, the idea that America has a unique and special destiny among nations.  Chicago of 1890 was the fastest growing city in the United States with one and a half million people and the fair also served to show the world that the city had risen from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire, which had destroyed so much of the city in 1871.

The bedroom of Marie Antoinette

Charles H. Wacker was the Director of the Fair. The layout of the fairgrounds was created by Frederick Law Olmsted (who remarked if one was looking for the worst possible site, they had found it). Sophia Hayden Bennett designed the Women's Building while Louis Comfort Tiffany made his reputation with a stunning chapel designed and built for the Exposition. Daniel Burnham, director of Works for the Fair, directed the Beaux-Arts architecture of the buildings.  It was a coming of age for the arts and architecture of the "American Renaissance" although Louis Sullivan's polychrome proto-Modern Transportation Building was one architectural exception.  Frank Lloyd Wright became entranced with Japanese design observing the Japanese contribution to the fair.

Docent, Brent A. Hoffman, tells all on the steps of the Museum of Science and Industry

Forty-six nations participated in the fair, which drew nearly 26 million visitors, and it left a remembered vision, which one can recognize in Frank Baum's Emerald City in the Land of Oz and in the Walt Disney theme parks.  Disney's father, Elias was a construction worker on some of the buildings.  The most visited building at the Fair was the Electricity Building, where Nicholas Tesla, George Westinghouse, Thomas Edison, Brush, Western Electric and Westinghouse all had exhibits and where the public was introduced to electric power.

And these famous firsts were at the Fair:
Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Cracker Jacks, Cream of Wheat, Quaker Oats, Hershey Chocolate, and the U.S. Postal Service introduced picture postcards and Commemorative stamp set, and the United States Mint offered its first commemorative coins: a quarter and half dollar and Columbus Day.

Marshall Field home

In an interview about his novel, Erik Larson said, "Taken together, the stories of how Daniel Burnham built the fair and how Dr. Holmes used it for murder formed an entirety that was far greater than the story of either man alone would have been.  I found it extraordinary that during this period of nearly miraculous creativity there should also exist a serial killer of such appetite and industry."  In 1895, Holmes confessed to 27 murders, but he was thought to have committed many more. There is no longer evidence of his hotel that once stood at 63rd and Wallace.

Following the picture presentation, buses took us to see the actual sites.  We began on Prairie Avenue where Chicago's rich and famous lived at the time of the fair, including Marshall Field.  Chicago's oldest home is also located here.  We passed through Bronzeville, also known as the Black Metropolis, acquiring its name from the blacks that migrated from the South in the early 1900s and settled there.  The first "L' tracks were put in place here to transport visitors to the Fair from downtown.  We also passed the new Harold Washington Cultural Center.

Chicago's first house

Riding along the Midway Plaisance (through the University of Chicago), we saw the area that actually enabled the Fair to make a profit.  This section was developed by a young music promoter, Sol Bloom, and featured entertainment that included the first Ferris Wheel-Chicago's response to Paris' Eiffel Tower. George Ferris' invention was a technical marvel on the World's Columbian Exposition's Midway Plaisance. Over 1,400 riders at a time could be elevated 264 feet above the fairgrounds in 36 bus-size carriages. This, the first Ferris wheel, was the most thrilling amusement at the fair. 

Nearby there was Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show, and visitors were also intrigued by the "Street in Cairo" where Little Egypt introduced America to the suggestive version of the belly dance known as the "hootchy-kootchy".

The view from the Clarence Darrow Bridge

Two days before the fair's scheduled closing, the popular mayor Carter Harrison, Sr. was assassinated and closing ceremonies were cancelled in favor of a public memorial service.  This was a sour and shocking end to the fair.

The tour continued through Jackson Park to the Museum of Science and Industry and across the Clarence Darrow Bridge to the beautiful Japanese Garden, the site of one of the two permanent structures left from the fair, the Japanese Building, which was sadly destroyed during WWII.  Chicago's sister city of Osaka has subsequently supplied a gate and a lovely bridge and it is now a beautiful contemplative garden.

Japanese Garden-the bridge

This tour is fascinating and very popular.  Many dates are sold out so act quickly.

Upcoming Dates:
Friday, May 18, 2007             10:30 AM
Sunday, May 27, 2007            10:30 AM
Friday, June 15, 2007             10:30 AM
Sunday, June 24, 2007            10:30 AM
Friday, July 13, 2007             10:30 AM
Sunday, July 22, 2007             10:30 AM
Friday, August 17, 2007         10:30 AM
Sunday, August 26, 2007        10:30 AM
Friday, September 14, 2007 10:30 AM
Sunday, September 30, 2007 10:30 AM

Meet:  ArchiCenter Shop in the Santa Fe Building, 224 S. Michigan Avenue.
Tour begins with a 45- minute slide presentation in the John Buck Company Lecture Hall followed by a two and one half hour bus tour of Prairie Avenue and Jackson Park.
Non-member  $ 55.00
Senior             $ 45.00
Student  $ 45.00
CAF member  $ 40.00
Duration:  3.25 hours
Reservation:  Required
Reservation Notes: Prepaid, non-refundable reservations are required.
Purchase on-line at: or call 312.902.1500.  Walk-ins are welcome if space permits. Tour frequently sells out; reservations are recommended.  CAF members only reserve at: 312.922.3432 x230.  
Maximum Capacity:  45

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