It’s a crazy idea, probably impossible ... but for some reason, it burrows into the brain and sticks. What if it could be done? ... What if magic could happen? And, sometimes -- not always, of course -- but sometimes magic does happen. The challenge creates a vortex of energy and focuses it like a laser beam on the possibility. Resources appear and obstacles and barriers disintegrate.
It happened that way in 1890 when the idea for celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World took root in the minds of a group of people in Chicago. Stung by the recent success of Paris’ world fair, and it’s stunning landmark, a tower -- the highest man-made structure on earth -- part engineering marvel, part lacy fantasy, designed by Gustave Eiffel, Chicagoans, and Americans in general, wanted a chance to out-do the French and out-Eiffel Eiffel. Chicago wanted to prove itself ready and worthy of playing on the world stage.
The story told in Erik Larson’s extremely readable "The Devil in the White City," is a case-study in innovation and a primer in the transformative power of an energizing challenge, a vision that engages hearts and minds and makes magic happen. The deck is stacked against the venture which involves building a city of the future from the ground up in a little over two years. No one really believes it can be done but one by one, already overly busy architects, designers and planners get sucked into the vision and obstacles such as quicksand, tornadoes, bank failures, union disruptions, and deaths bow to the momentum of the vision. Egos and politics among ten different architects recede and a unifying design emerges ... a vision of a "dream city," white, clean, classical yet futuristic.
And, magic happens. A thirty-three year old bridge-builder from Pittsburgh happens to attend a Saturday luncheon where engineers are rebuked for not rising to the challenge to "out-Eiffel Eiffel" -- to create something other than a tower that would be the distinguishing feature for the fair. While others at the luncheon take offense, an idea suddenly comes to the young engineer. He sees a different type of tower ... a towering wheel that lifts people high into the sky where they can see the entire Dream City, Chicago and Lake Michigan before gently rotating back down again. George Ferris eventually built his wheel which soared 264 feet into the air, lifting 36 luxurious wooden cars that held sixty people in each and attracting hundreds of thousands of fair goers from across the country and around the world.
The Columbian Exposition of 1893 launched hundreds of innovations ... from new ways of building on water-logged soil to shredded wheat; from a new appreciation of architecture and landscape to
sunglasses; from alternating current to possibly the beginnings of Disneyland (Walt Disney’s father, Elias, helped build the Dream City).
"The Devil in the White City" is a fascinating history of the Columbian Exposition, however, it is also the tale of a serial killer who lurks in the dark shadows of the great fair in a time when violence is more commonplace and young women disappear without creating a ripple. It is a brilliant and thought provoking work.