I started this book years ago and then was distracted by something else and never finished it. I had to pick it up again when I learned that a movie is in the works starring Leonoardo Dicaprio, and I am so glad I did. This page-turner captures the turmoil and challenges behind creating the Colombian Exposition of Chicago in 1893 while simultaneously telling the story of a young and charming man who used the draw of the fair to prey on naive and vulnerable women alone in the big city.
After a heated battle with New York, Chicago, known as the second city in comparison, receives the opportunity to host the World’s Fair. Burnham, a team of American architects, and Olmstead, his landscape designer, only have a few years to build an attraction that has to rival the Paris Exposition which boasts the largest building of steel at the time, the Eiffel Tower. Trouble abounds from the very beginning when the inhospitable Chicago soil makes erecting large buildings for the fair almost impossible in the wasteland of Jackson Park. There are labor strikes, an uncertain economy, and financial woes. Riding on everything is the pride of Burnham, Chicago, and the nation.
Larson alternates the chapters of the construction of the fair with the story of a gregarious physician, H.H. Holmes, who takes over a pharmacy in the suburb of Englewood. He designs and builds a gloomy structure across the street that he plans to open as a hotel for fair-goers, but Holmes has something much more sinister in mind. Several women have already gone missing under his care, but his charm allows him to evade suspicion. Even more, he has fleeced all those around him from his employees to his creditors. It seems that the devil is at work here, and that he is unstoppable.
Who knew that construction and architecture could be so fascinating? Larson is adept at relaying the history of the Colombian Exposition in a captivating story that has special resonance to me, living not too far from the “white city.” If you haven’t read this book yet, add it to your list. It is one of those books everyone should read.