The story is full of characters. The main protagonists are murderer Holmes, architect Burnham (the first architect of skyscrapers which began in Chicago and also the architect of New York's Flatiron building) and Landscape Gardener Olmsted (who also designed Central Park). 'Also starring' are Buffalo Bill whose Wild West Show was set up opposite the Fair and drew bigger crowds; Ferris who invented his wheel to be the Fair's answer to Eiffel's Tower; Frank Lloyd Wright, a young architect in a rival to Burnham's Chicago firm who was fired by his boss Louis Sullivan; and Patrick Prendergast, a mad Irishman who assassinated Chicago's mayor just before the closing of the Fair. Walk on parts include incandescent bulbs powered by ac, Juicy Fruit chewing gum, Elias Disney, the father of Walt, who worked on the Fair; Shredded Wheat and even the Titanic.
But the reason I read this big book in two obsessive days is the power of the writing. The author weaves his story magnificently, dropping little hins about the triumphs and tragedies to come. And he has some wonderfully purple moments:
- "Daylight faded to thin broth." (p30)
- "For this buttoned-up age .... it was a letter that could have steamed itself open." (p257)
And some great quotes:
- "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood." Daniel H Burnham
- "Damn your preambles! Get down to facts." Richard M Hunt
A brilliantly written book that contrasts the light and the dark at every turn.
February 2012; 442 pages