It is February 24, 1890, and thousands of people gather outside the offices of the Chicago Tribune. Chicago is a proud city, and has recently grown in population to more than one million for the first time, making it the second-largest city in the United States after New York. Chicago, though, has only achieved this distinction by incorporating new areas into the city limits. America perceives Chicago as a greedy, ugly place, and the information the people are waiting outside the Tribune to hear could help to change this perception.
Inside the Tribune sit Chicago’s two most important architects, Daniel Burnham, aged 43, and his partner, John Root, 40. Despite their enormous reputation, having built the first building ever to be called a skyscraper, the Montauk, they know that the information they are waiting to hear today has the potential to eclipse everything they have achieved previously.
Despite writing a work of nonfiction, Larson depicts the events of his book from the characters’ limited point of view. Thus, we, like the characters themselves, don’t know exactly what’s going on.
Immediately after the Civil War, which ended less than three decades earlier, the idea of holding a national fair in the United States to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World would have been inconceivable. But after the success of the 1889 “Universal Exposition” in Paris, a World’s Fair that includes the erection of the Eiffel Tower, America becomes keen to compete with France and show its dominance in steelwork.
America changes enormously in the three decades following the Civil War. It becomes a global power, and eagerly tries to assert itself to Europe. In some ways, the way Chicago feels toward Eastern cities such as New York is how America feels about Europe. Thus, by celebrating Columbus, Americans have one eye on their own heritage and another on the rest of the world.
At first, politicians plan to hold a World’s Fair in Washington D.C., but later, New York and St. Louis decide to compete for the distinction of hosting the huge event. This stirs civic pride in Chicago, which launches a huge national campaign to host the World’s Fair in Chicago. On February 24, people are gathered outside the Tribune to hear the results of the Congressional vote to determine where the fair will be held. The Tribune reports that the initial ballot puts Chicago at 115 votes, far ahead of New York, St. Louis, and Washington. When the second ballot comes, Chicago is still in the lead, but losing its margin. As the day turns into evening, crowds yell that the people of St. Louis are evil and immoral. After seven ballots, Chicago is one vote away from the simple majority it needs.
The degree of civic pride and state rivalry Larson depicts is arguably inconceivable today, especially the way the people of Chicago call St. Louis an evil city. This is also an era in which civic pride can achieve measurable results. While New York is the economic center of America and Washington is the capitol, Chicago has more city pride, and this by itself is enough to make it a contender for hosting the WF.
Burnham, the architect, was born in New York, but his family moved to Chicago when he was a nine. He was a poor student, though he drew and sketched constantly, and he failed to pass his entrance exams to Harvard and Yale. As a young man, he found his passion as a draftsman at an architectural firm. His father introduced him to John Root, a draftsman with whom he quickly became partners.
Burnham spends most of his early life outside the intellectual elite. He is never one of the top students in his class, and his rejection from Ivy League colleges echoes throughout his life. In this way he mirrors Chicago in its relations to the Eastern US. He is also an atypical creative person because he only arrives at architecture as a profession as a young man.
Root and Burnham made their name designing a mansion for John B. Sherman, a wealthy superintendent of Chicago’s slaughterhouses, the industry upon which the entire city depends. Burnham would go on to marry Sherman’s daughter, Margaret.
The slaughterhouses are clearly one of the economic centers of the city of Chicago. Burnham’s connection to a slaughterhouse family confirms his connection to the city of Chicago itself, but also establishes that the city is built on these slaughterhouses. Its business is literally death.
Root and Sherman built the Montauk, the first building in the world to be called a skyscraper. They achieved this feat by using caissons, a building technology that allowed foundations to extend deep into the ground. Caissons had claimed the lives of dozens of workers, since drilling into the ground could lead to gas explosions. Root is the artistic side of the partnership; Burnham is better at playing the politics of the architectural world. Both men respect and rely upon each other.
Burnham is an ambitious man, as evidenced by his willingness to risk lives building the first skyscraper. At the same time, he can be a “team player,” cooperating with Root, his partner. Both of these qualities will be important to Burnham during the WF.
Root and Burnham’s success encourages a wave of building and design in Chicago, and they become wealthy. At the same time, Chicago becomes bigger and dirtier: floods and rain spread disease and stray animals die in the streets. In 1885, a fire destroys Grannis Block, some of Root and Burnham’s most impressive work. Then, Root and Burnham lose a major contract to build the Chicago Auditorium to a rival firm, headed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. Still, they are hugely successful.
Burnham and Root’s success is both a symptom and a cause of Chicago’s rapid growth, meaning that they are indirectly to blame for the city’s chaos and congestion (and, arguably, for its crimes). At the time when they become involved with the WF, they have a reputation, but, because of their rivalries, they also have something to prove.
Outside the Tribune, the people of Chicago learn the news that their city will host the World’s Fair. Chauncey Depew, an influential campaigner for New York to host the fair, wishes Chicago good luck. The good news quickly spreads to all parts of Chicago, including to the Whitechapel Club, a ghoulish society inspired by Jack the Ripper’s murders.
For some Chicagoans, death and murder are entertainment as well as danger. This suggests that the prospect of a serial killer is still inconceivable to the city — or, much more darkly, that there is something entertaining about violence, an idea that even links the book’s reader, who wants to learn and enjoy, to its serial killer.
Chicago establishes a corporation called the World’s Columbian Exposition Company to organize and pay for the fair, while Burnham and Root are given architectural control over the fair. Their task is daunting: essentially, they have to build an entire city in three years. This pace is almost impossible; their rivals, Sullivan and Adler, for instance, have spent three years on a single building. Nevertheless, they proceed, confident that they can meet any challenge.
Burnham and Root greet the enormous challenge of hosting the WF with great ambition. Their ambition mirrors that of Chicago itself.