Larson’s book, The Devil in the White City, is a case study of a very large project in the early 1890s—the project was the conception and building of the 1893 World’s Fair; also known as the Columbian Exhibition. Daniel Burnham was the primary architect and the primary character in this book. This book discusses Burnham’s background, the planning, the selection of Chicago over New York, obtaining funds, power struggles between different controlling groups, being the first major user of electricity for lighting, and the extremely tight schedule.
Burnham’s work is documented from the beginning, through the project’s senior team selection, the problems encountered, and even describes the miraculous overnight cleanup in the hours before the fair opened. Throughout the planning stages and early construction, Burnham searched for something that would upstage Gustave Eiffel’s tower at the recent 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. Burnham was approached by Philadelphia architect named George Ferris who had an idea for ride that had never existed before…the first Ferris Wheel. The project was rejected by the Fair committee during the first application. It was accepted only after Ferris found his own source of funding.
Juxtaposed with the Columbian Exhibition’s project management is another man who is obsessed with killing young women in Chicago—in the shadow of the Exhibition. Although the two major subjects of this book (apparently) never met, their paths were intricately intertwined with the Exposition.
I felt this book was an especially valuable read at this time (when we are in a recession) because the fair was completed and held in the first year of the 1893 to 1898 economic depression. This 447-page book, including the 27 pages of notes and sources, makes this well researched book an interesting biography of two men in 19th century America. I would recommend this book for anyone who has an interest in the management of a major project within a historic context.