The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City


Erik Larson

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The Devil in the White City: Part 1, Chapter 10 Summary & Analysis

On January 12, 1891, Burnham invites Eastern and Chicago architects to his library; Root is absent. Burnham is aware that the Eastern architects are still reluctant to work on the Fair, and tries to flatter them into staying. In response, the architect Richard Morris Hunt, who has traveled from New York, bluntly tells Burnham to get to the point; Burnham is reminded of his rejection from Harvard and Yale. He tells his guests that they are now the Board of Architects for the World’s Fair; the Board elects Hunt as their chairman. Sullivan is privately unhappy with this decision, since he thinks that, in contrast to Hunt and Burnham’s old-fashioned style, the form of a building should follow logically from its function.
Burnham has to overcome the sense of exclusion from the creative elite he’s felt since being rejected from Harvard and Yale. Yet he manages to maintain control over his mutinous group of architects. Ironically, while Burnham is concerned about being a part of the contemporary creative elite (i.e. those of the late 19th century), Sullivan is secretly thinking ahead to the future of architecture. His notion that form should follow function would become a key principle of Modernist architecture, and can be seen in Germany’s Bauhaus designs.
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Shortly after the meeting, Burnham learns that Root has pneumonia and is bedridden. For the next few weeks, Burnham is absent from the Board of Architects’ meetings, since he is taking care of his old partner, who seems in surprisingly good spirits. Despite Sullivan’s feelings, the Board chooses a neoclassical style for the World’s Fair. Meanwhile, Root succumbs to his illness and dies. He begs Burnham not to leave his bedside, but Burnham does to speak with Root’s wife. In this time, Root dies; a relative of Root informs Burnham that before he died, he ran his fingers across his bed and said he could hear music. Burnham grieves for Root, in part because he wanted Root to be his partner throughout the World’s Fair. Though he considers quitting the Fair, his desire to prove himself compels him to stay involved.
For all his practicality and forward thinking, Burnham’s loyalty to his partner outweighs his loyalty to the WF. But this doesn’t mean that he’s unambitious or selfless — after Root dies, Burnham returns to the WF, not because he wants to keep his promises but because he wants to prove himself to the other architects. Root’s last words suggest that he was a creative, imaginative man who could find “music” anywhere — a perfect complement to Burnham’s no-nonsense personality. Without a partner, Burnham’s job becomes immeasurably harder.
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While Burnham and the Board of Architects works on designs, banks continue to fail, and unions fight for minimum wage and an eight-hour workday. Disease and the threat of fire, along with these other factors, threaten to make the Fair a failure. Meanwhile, Prendergast falls deeper into madness, and Holmes continues his mysterious plans.
Larson closes the first part of his book with a bleak look at the state of Chicago in the year leading up to the opening ceremony of the Fair. Designing the Fair itself seems an impossible feat; meanwhile, Holmes continues his evil plans uninterrupted.
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