The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City

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The Devil in the White City Part 2, Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It is the spring of 1891, and Burnham has begun to tire of designing the Fair. He spends almost no time with his wife and five children, but sends them letters saying that he wants the Fair to be over so that he can return to them.
Burnham is an ambitious man, but he only has a finite amount of energy. He also has a life and a family outside the WF — something he will be reminded of more and more often as the Opening Ceremony approaches. Yet just as Ned abandons his family, Burnham effectively must abandon his family to bring off the WF.
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Workers are building in Jackson Park, but slowly and inefficiently. Burnham is irritated that no architect has proposed a building to rival the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Meanwhile, he realizes that the soil in Jackson Park is so soft that special foundations will have to be built far below the surface. These foundations, designed by Root, work for the most part — but not in the area where the heaviest building will be erected.
Burnham is an excellent planner, but even he is at the mercy of nature, and has to work around the problems with the soil. Burnham is also not the most important creative force at the WF: he’s primarily an organizer, who waits for other architects to submit their designs. Thus, he must wait for a building that can rival the Eiffel Tower, instead of designing it himself.
Themes
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Meanwhile, Mayor Carter Henry Harrison loses his bid for a fifth term as mayor to Hempstead Washburne, because he’s considered to be too sympathetic to unions. Ironically, his loss is impressive, since he lost by only a few thousand votes, and ran as an independent, without the support of the Democratic Party that had supported him in the past. Prendergast is saddened by Harrison’s defeat, since he thinks that he would have been given a government job in return for his support.
Despite the enormous increase in immigrants and working-class people in Chicago at the time, being sympathetic to workers is a liability in Chicago politics. This indicates the level of control the rich and powerful few have (some things never change). Prendergast’s fantasies of a government position become increasingly delusional, even after Harrison loses.
Themes
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Meanwhile, there is a battle underway between electricity companies for the right to illuminate the World’s Fair. Thomas Edison visits Burnham and advises him to use DC (Direct Current) powered incandescent bulbs. At the same time, George Westinghouse, working with Nikola Tesla, offers to light the exposition for less money using Alternating Current (AC) powered bulbs, and Burnham awards him the contract — a huge victory for AC, and a milestone and defining moment in the history of electricity.
The WF attracts important scientific minds as well as creative types. Indeed, the prestige of the Fair is such that Westinghouse scores a major victory by getting the contract to light it. This victory leads to the “victory” of AC current over DC, determining the way that the “electric grid” still operates today.
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Burnham continues to experience setbacks. Hunt and the other Eastern architects have not completed their final designs on time; Burnham abandons all attempts at flattery and tells Hunt, point-blank, that he is embarrassing the Fair. Olmsted becomes sick, and the Fair grounds are covered with manure.
Burnham is a talented flatterer, but at times, he has to trade flattery for insistence. The tactic of “putting the Fair’s interests ahead of your own” is an important weapon for Burnham, and he uses it here, accusing Hunt of embarrassing the entire exposition.
Themes
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While Burnham tries to complete the Fair on time, people from around the country send “bids” for exhibits at the Fair. Buffalo Bill offers his famous “Wild West” show, but is turned down, though he resolves to set up a show near the World’s Fair. A man named Sol Bloom wants to display an entire Algerian village, just like at the Paris World’s Fair, but his idea is turned down, too. Schufeldt, who went to Zanzibar to bring pygmies back to America, writes that he is confident he can complete his task.
The exhibits at the WF paint a colorful and somewhat disturbing picture of America’s relationship with the rest of the world at the time. America, which had just come out of a Civil War fought over the institution of slavery, sees Africans and Native Americans as sources of entertainment more than as human beings.
Themes
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The architects try to outdo the Eiffel Tower, but even their planned structures aren’t remotely as impressive as the Parisian building, at the time the tallest in the world. Though various designers submit plans for taller towers, Burnham wonders if the centerpiece of the Fair should be a tower at all. Gustave Eiffel himself, the designer of the Eiffel Tower, offers to design a building for the Fair, but the Board of Architects insists that an American must be the one to design the Fair’s most important building.
The task of rivaling the Eiffel Tower continues to trouble the WF officials, but they stubbornly refuse to let Eiffel himself solve it — American patriotism is so strong, and so elemental in the establishment of the WF itself, that it must be an American who designs the new building.
Themes
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Sol Bloom is a colorful and creative theater manager, who uses a variety of clever tactics to increase sales. After being denied in his bid to bring an Algerian village to the Fair, he goes the mayor of San Francisco, Mike De Young, and asks for his help in lobbying Chicago to allow the exhibit. De Young asks Bloom to go to Chicago. Bloom, who wants to stay in California, intentionally asks for an overly high salary, certain that this will mean that De Young will allow him to stay.
Bloom is one of the many clever, creative problem solvers attracted to the WF in the 1890s, though for the time being he does not want to go. Many of the key men in the success of the WF are not artists or architects, but simply organizers: adept at promoting events and instilling interest in potential investors and spectators.
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To make the Fair safe, Burnham organizes a large police force, and purifies the drinking water using the modern methods pioneered by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, in order to avoid an outbreak of cholera. He also establishes a special fire department in the event that a fire breaks out.
The WF takes advantage of important scientific discoveries; in this way, it’s a record of the state of science at the time. Burnham’s techniques for preventing disease would be influential in city organizing for years to come.
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At the end of 1891, the Woman’s Building is progressing, but its architect, Sophia Hayden, quarrels with Bertha Palmer, the wealthy head of the Board of Lady Managers. Palmer solicits decorations for the inside of the Woman’s Building, resulting in a huge number of ornaments, artworks, and other trinkets. Hayden is furious, since the decorations will look ugly. She begins to turn down decorations, and Palmer dismisses her as decorator of the interior. Hayden breaks down in front of Burnham, furious at Palmer’s maneuvers; Burnham calls a doctor and has Hayden sent to a mental institute, where she falls into depression.
There is a constant conflict at the WF to determine the overarching style of the event. Some, like Palmer, prefer a showy, opulent, occasionally muddled spectacle; others, like Hayden, want a simpler, more elegant affair. Because the people who prefer opulence have money, their tastes eventually win out. Burnham’s treatment of Hayden reflects the prevailing attitudes toward women at the time: even in architecture, they weren’t taken seriously, and were easily dismissed from projects.
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Olmsted quarrels with Burnham about the proper boats for the Fair. Olmsted wants old-fashioned “poetic” boats, while Burnham considers using modern steam-powered vessels to improve transportation time. Meanwhile, workers begin to die at the Fair, some from structural collapses or falls, some from electrocution. Banks continue to fail financially as the recession worsens, and The New York Times argues that the Fair will be a failure that will be an embarrassment to the entire country.
Olmsted, like Hayden, prefers a simpler, less cluttered aesthetic for the WF. Burnham, by contrast, is more organizationally minded, and wants to improve transportation more than he wants to create a beautiful spectacle. Burnham’s vision depends upon the work, and the death, of workers — the very size and opulence of the buildings at the WF are proof of the men who die building them. The WF is literally built on their lives. There is an unsettling question in this, as Burnham must know that these great works will result in people dying to build them. If he knows this, what separates him from being a murderer?
Themes
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Civic Pride and American Patriotism Theme Icon