A while back, someone shared with me a book by Erik Larsen called The Devil in the White City. I had been impressed by Larsen’s Isaac’s Storm , which was an account of the September, 1900 hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas. Larsen is a meticulous researcher who draws a fine portrait of people and places in his books, so I anticipated this new book. It is about the Columbian Exposition (The White City) celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ first expedition to the Americas in Chicago in 1893 and the parallel story of a mass murderer operating in Chicago at that time (the devil).
Larsen makes it clear that Chicago badly wanted to host this World’s Fair, vying against New York for the honor. Internationally acclaimed architects, including Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park and Biltmore, led by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, designed and built a glittering city on the shores of Lake Michigan. Some historians mark the opening of the twentieth century from the Exposition. and it does indeed seem to belong to the twentieth century, \perhaps because it was over budget, behind schedule and initially did not make as much as projected. But it eventually did attract millions of people from May through October to see things they had never seen before, not the least of which were thousands of brilliant electric lights, powered by the Westinghouse alternating current system. Westinghouse was in direct competition with Edison’s direct current system, and the success of the fair established Westinghouse as the dominant electrical system in the country. The Fair also had complete villages from all over the world, exotic restaurants, marvelous shops, and the first ferris wheel, a huge device 264 feet high with cars as big as Pullman coaches.
Everyone who was anyone came to the fair—Susan B. Anthony was there, as well as President Cleveland, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Baum, Paderewski, Houdini, Thomas Edison, Scott Joplin, Clarence Darrow, Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller, and Buffalo Bill Cody, who wanted to bring his Wild West show to the Fair and was told it was not dignified enough. He leased fifteen acres next to the fairgrounds and had a wildly successful run. Visitors saw for the first time the zipper, an all-electric kitchen including a dishwasher, the first pancake mix in a box under the name of Aunt Jemima, a new snack called Cracker Jack, Juicy Fruit Gum and Shredded Wheat, which had less than enthusiastic reception, earning itself the nickname, “Shredded Doormat.”
At night the city gleamed like a vision from another world. The old city of Chicago, dark with soot and reeking from the slaughterhouses and horses, became known as the Black City. Visitors saw a vision of the future, and some took that vision with them. Frank Lloyd Wright was influenced by the architecture, and the classical structures set the pattern for towns and cities all over the country. One of the carpenters who worked on the Fair was named Elias Disney. His son, Walt, born in 1901, heard tales from his father of the wonderful city on the lake and went on to build wonderful cities of his own. Poet Katherine Lee Bates visited and later wrote in “America the Beautiful” about the “patriot dream that sees, beyond the years, thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!” The Exposition was largely responsible for starting the City Beautiful movement in which architects and planners recognized the importance of parks and landscaping and public spaces as a part of city life.
The builders of the Fair dreamed of the perfect city which of course it was not, but what they built was far beyond what anyone had ever seen. I like to think that they were influenced by a book called Beyond the Gates which was a description of heaven which appeared in 1871 and was enormously popular following the horrendous losses of the Civil War. Included in that description was the portrait of heaven as a shining city. While there is no direct evidence of this, I think that the architects and designers of the fair would have read the book and perhaps had the description in the back of their minds. Heaven is, of course, the perfect city, the one to which we all aspire. While we are here, though, we can create the Beautiful City of God to the extent that we worship God, serve each other, help those who are downtrodden, share the Gospel, and pray for each other. Perhaps the City of God is most built not by hands but by prayer, prayer both prayed and and felt. In choir we have sung an anthem, “Somebody’s Prayin’” which begins, “Someboy’s prayin’ : I can feel it.” Somebody is indeed praying, and someone’s building the City of God.