In July, 1890, the World’s Columbian Exposition Company still hasn’t decided where in Chicago the World’s Fair should be held. The various neighborhoods of the city are fighting for the right to host the fair. Meanwhile, the opening ceremony is scheduled for October 12, 1892, while the formal opening is set for May 1, 1893. Burnham and Root have only 26 months to complete their projects.
The unity of Chicago’s fight to host the WF quickly vanishes as the different neighborhood fight amongst themselves. This is especially distressing in light of the small amount of time Burnham and Root have to complete their enormous task.
Burnham’s friend on the board of World’s Columbian Exposition Company, James Ellsworth, goes to Massachusetts, where he asks Frederick Law Olmsted, a prominent architect and one of the designers of Central Park in New York city, to help him decide which area of Chicago is best for the fair, and also design the landscapes for it. Olmsted is initially reluctant to pursue such a huge undertaking in so little time, but Ellsworth eventually convinces him that the fair will be a glorious achievement, ensuring Olmsted’s lasting fame. Olmsted, who is old and in poor health, thinks that working on the World’s Fair will give greater credibility to the field of landscape architecture.
In large part, the people who design the world are already famous, successful, and in poor health — this leads us to ask why they are doing this; why they are devoting so much of their time to a fair. In part, Olmsted is devoted to the practice of landscaping itself, but his real reason is that he is concerned about his legacy and always looking for another way to be remembered. Olmsted may stand for Burnham and his colleagues in this way — they’re designing the WF for the glory, more than for any practical reason.
Olmsted comes to Chicago with Henry Sargent Codman, a young and talented landscape architect. Burnham is impressed with both Olmsted and Codman, particularly their fast pace; Olmsted and Codman, for their part, respect Burnham’s reputation and no-nonsense approach. Olmsted proposes that the Fair be built in Jackson Park, an area with a beautiful view of Lake Michigan. Olmsted is somewhat biased, since he tried to design landscaping for Jackson Park in the years leading up to Chicago’s Great Fire, and never got the chance to implement his ideas. While the board considers his proposal, time is wasted, irritating Burnham.
Codman’s youth makes him an outsider, at least superficially, in the company of older, more experienced men like Burnham and Olmsted, but his drive and ambition put him in their league. Olmsted’s personal investment in the WF becomes clearer when it’s revealed that he wanted to finish what he started at Jackson Park. Appearances seem as important in the WF as they are for Holmes, hence the committee’s idea to establish the fair in an area with a beautiful view of the Lake.
While the board decides where to build, Chicago’s skyline continues to grow. Burnham and his colleagues go to a ceremony to celebrate the completion of two notable skyscrapers, including the Women’s Christian Temperance Union Temple, and meet the former Mayor of Chicago, Carter Henry Harrison, who has previously served four terms and is running for another. Ironically, Burnham, Harrison, and Root are all notorious drinkers.
Burnham and his colleagues are talented at putting on an appearance of morality, or at least suspending their immorality when they are committed to a project. One sees this quality in Mayor Harrison, too. Chicago’s most successful people, it would seem, are the ones who can pretend to be “good” in public.
Patrick Prendergast, a pathetic 22 year-old who runs a group of newsboys, will soon shape the history of the Chicago World’s Fair. He is lonely and mentally disturbed, and writes hundreds of letters to city officials, including Mayor Harrison, as if he is their close associate. He energetically campaigns for Harrison, and thinks that he will be rewarded with a government job, even though Harrison has no idea who he is.
After learning about the talented, ambitious men who designed the WF, it comes as a surprise to learn that a young, apparently talentless man will change history. Perhaps this is proof that Chicago at the end of the 19th century was a chaotic, unpredictable place, but it also makes the 19th century seem eerily similar to the present day.
In October of 1890, news comes to America from Europe that there is a worldwide recession that will quickly spread to Wall Street. Railroads will lose business, representing a huge threat to the popularity and success of the World’s Fair. Still, on October 30, the board of the World’s Columbian Exposition Company appoints Burnham chief of construction — Root is the supervising architect and Olmsted is the supervising landscape architect.
The WF is truly a “World” affair — it’s affected by the global economy. This increases the stakes for Burnham and his colleagues — not only do they have to put on a show that will impress the world; they also have to make the show survive the social and economic challenges that come from around the world.