Good And Evil May 15, 2009Posted by Chuck Musciano in Book Reviews.
Tags: History, Leadership, Project Management
The stakes were high for the 1892 World’s Fair. Dubbed the Colombian Exposition, the fair was intended to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the new world. Coming on the heels of the spectacular World Exposition in Paris in 1889, symbolized by the new Eiffel Tower, chances were not good that the Colombian Exposition could never, ever top what the French had pulled off.
Nonetheless, various US cities fought fiercely to host the event. After much politicking, Chicago won the rights to the fair in 1890, tasked to create an entire global event in less than two years. Other cities, most notably New York, were sure that Chicago would fail miserably, embarrassing the US in the eyes of the world.
The citizens of Chicago proved them wrong. Their herculean efforts to create the 1892 World’s Fair are chronicled in Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. His scrupulously researched book provides a glorious view not only into the vast project of the fair, but of daily life in 1890s Chicago. For those of us who manage large projects, there is definite sympathy for the team of architects and engineers who struggled against all odds to deliver, on time, the greatest fair in history, ultimately topping the French and cementing the US position in the eyes of the world.
Beyond the appeal to project managers, any fan of history will relish the endless number of things that originated with the 1892 fair. Juicy Fruit gum, Shredded Wheat cereal, AC power, and the Ferris Wheel? All debuted at the fair. A young draftsmen dismissed by the architects for refusing to adhere to their designs? That would be Frank Lloyd Wright. A carpenter who helped create the fantasy structures of the fair who later regaled his children, Roy and Walt, with tales of the project? That would be Roy and Walt Disney; each stroll down Main Street in DisneyWorld today is an echo of the same walk down the Midway of Chicago in 1892.
But what of the evil? With the fair as a backdrop, the most prolific serial killer in US history preyed on visitors to Chicago. H. H. Holmes came up with a clever idea: he built a hotel near the fair, offering rooms to the many young women who came to Chicago seeking a career amid the excitement of the fair. Charming and charismatic, Holmes wooed these arrivals to the city, who seemed to disappear at an alarming rate.
The hotel occupied the top floor of his building, with his personal residence and shops on the floors below. Few knew that the basement included a 3000° kiln and airtight rooms outfitted with gas jets. Holmes was a busy man; estimates of his handiwork range from 25 to 200 victims.
Erik Larson does a marvelous job of weaving these two stories together, contrasting the lofty aspirations of the White City of the fair with the dark evil lurking literally next door. The technology and social structure of the Gilded Age that made the fair a success also allowed Holmes to operate with impunity. Larson brings an immediacy to the book that makes it difficult to put down; his almost off-hand recounting of the present-day echoes of the fair is a delight.
This book is worth your time, if only to provide parallel views into worlds we will never inhabit: the fantasy of the fair, Chicago society in 1892, and the mind of a psychopathic killer. Both are fascinating and in their own ways remind us that things, good or bad, are never really what they seem.