Route 66 activities:  CAF’s The Devil in the White City tour

The Chicago Architecture Foundation tours are one of the best things you can do if you‘re visiting the city.  In fact, Trip Advisor, the formidable travel website, gives the CAF tours its Certificate of Excellence.  Of course, Joe, Keith and I have long been fans of the CAF tours and highly recommend them to others.  But there’s one tour in particular that might interest you – especially if you’ve read Erik Larson’s magnificent book, The Devil in the White City about the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, its builders, and the man who might have been the city’s very first serial killer.  We went on the tour in late March with a group from the Illinois Geographical Society – this was a special field trip for the IGS that CAF organized just for us – and we thought we’d tell you about it.

You’re probably wondering what on earth a serial killer and the Columbian Exposition have to do with Route 66.  Fair enough (pun intended):  the serial killer is gruesomely interesting but irrelevant to Route 66.  But the Columbian Exposition and its director of construction, architect and city planner Daniel Burnham, are not.  Stand at the intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue – the Gateway to Route 66 – and take a look around.  Daniel Burnham is directly or indirectly responsible for what’s on all four corners; and this intersection is essentially the same as it was in 1926, when the route began.

Jackson and Michigan looking west, Chicago (Google Maps street view) - blog

The Gateway to Route 66 at Jackson and Michigan, looking west  (Google Maps street view)

On the northwest corner is the building he and his architects designed and that became his firm’s headquarters, the Railway Exchange Building.  On the southwest stands the Straus Building, an Art Deco office-building-turned-residence that was designed by one of Burnham’s survivor firms, Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, led by his partner Ernest Graham, who was also Burnham’s assistant director of construction for the 1893 world’s fair.  On the southeast corner is Grant Park, for which Burnham made many suggestions over the years and which he and his urban planning partner Edward H. Bennett redesigned in detail in their 1909 Plan of Chicago (it fell to Bennett to execute their ideas after Burnham unexpectedly died in 1912).  And on the northeast corner is the Art Institute of Chicago, a building originally designed as a venue for lectures, recitals, symposia and other events associated with the Columbian Exposition – the sole exception that Aaron Montgomery Ward was willing to make in his legal battles to keep Grant Park and the lakefront “forever open, clear and free.”  That is, so long as the building was handed over to the Art Institute after the fair ended, a condition to which Burnham and the exposition company’s board readily agreed.

And there’s your connection:  from the world’s fair to Burnham, to the route’s eastern gateway, to today.  Besides, even though Burnham himself didn’t know it at the time, the daunting feat of creating the White City for the 1893 world’s fair is not only what set Burnham on the path of pursuing the Beaux Arts/Classical Revival style City Beautiful, which would influence his own remaining work (and the work of many others thereafter), it would also be the training ground for his own future urban planning projects – all of which would culminate in the seminal 1909 Plan of Chicago and the lakefront that Chicago has today.  The 1909 plan itself began with Burnham’s idea of a long strip of parkland connecting Jackson Park to the lakefront downtown, which is why the Chicago Plan Commission decided to name that park after Burnham shortly after he died.

Ralway Exchange Building, aka the Santa Fe Building  (photo copyright 2013 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

Ralway Exchange Building, aka the Santa Fe Building (photo copyright 2013 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

Now, on to the tour!  Our group of 34 met that morning at the CAF bookstore in the Railway Exchange Building.  We began with a 45-minute lecture and visual presentation, through which we were introduced to key characters from the book.  They included Burnham himself, the fair’s principal organizer and Director of Works, i.e., construction; Frederick Law Olmsted, the fair’s landscape architect, who resurrected Jackson Park from a wasteland; George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., a Pittsburgh engineer and inventor of the first Ferris Wheel, which was a favorite at the fair; socialite and women’s advocate Bertha Palmer, whose Board of Lady Managers was in charge of planning the Woman’s Building; Sophia Hayden, the first female architecture graduate of MIT, who designed the Woman’s Building and impressed Burnham, but whom bossy Bertha genteelly harassed into a nervous breakdown before the building’s décor could be completed (it was handed off to a young woman who was much more agreeable to Mrs. Palmer’s suggestions, while poor Ms. Hayden was discreetly carted off to a sanatorium to recover; she recovered but never worked again as an architect); and Ida B. Wells, a black social activist who encouraged a black boycott of the fair because of the underrepresentation of blacks in the fair’s labor force and in the exhibits.  The infamous H.H. Holmes and his ‘murder hotel’ that took in young women during the fair was also mentioned briefly during the lecture, but it received scant reference during the tour (perhaps it was just as well:  the building no longer exists).

Next, we set out to see some of the exposition-related sites by bus.  We drove south through the former vice districts of Little Cheyenne (1890s-1900s) and the Levee (1910s-1920s).  Our guide mentioned that young, single women coming to look for employment in Chicago were often waylaid near the Dearborn Street railway station and coerced into a life of ill repute.  That station was only a few blocks from the South Loop’s vice district at the time, and the practice of snaring girls at the station continued well into the Roaring Twenties.  It’s how vice king and restaurateur ‘Big Jim’ Colosimo, who dominated the Levee during the early 1920s, got many of his girls (Colosimo’s wife, Victoria Moresco, was aunt to Johnny ‘The Fox’ Torrio, who worked as Colosimo’s man after he arrived from New York – right up until Prohibition began, when Colosimo was murdered, supposedly for refusing to get into the illegal booze business.  Torrio at that point invited his protégé from Brooklyn, Al Capone, to Chicago … and the rest is history).

Our first stop was the once (and once again, after several decades) fashionable Prairie Avenue district, home to the turn of the last century’s hoi polloi.  A section of the area is now a historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Chicago Landmark as well.  There, we saw – but didn’t enter – historic Glessner House, the Kimball mansion (home of the man who founded the Kimball Piano Company), one of the Keith mansions, and Clarke House, the oldest residence in Chicago dating back to the mid-1830s.  CAF was originally founded during the 1970s to save and preserve Glessner House, which it owned and ran for many years; the house is now operated by a separate foundation that runs the house tour.

Aerial view of Glessner House (via Wikimedia Commons)

Aerial view of Glessner House on Prairie Avenue, Chicago  (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The Prairie Avenue district was at one time lined with mansions whose owners’ names were a Who’s Who of Chicago’s elite – names like George Pullman, Philip D. Armour, and Marshall Field and son, who had lived but a few doors away from each other.  Indeed, during the 1880s and 1890s it wasn’t unusual to see Messrs. Field, Armour and Pullman walking up Prairie Avenue to work together every weekday morning.  Our guide also mentioned something that we three already knew:  in addition to a number of later residential commissions, Burnham also found his bride-to-be Margaret there on Prairie Avenue.  Or rather, she found him while Burnham and partner John Wellborn Root were overseeing the construction of a mansion that Burnham & Root had designed for her father, John J. Sherman, then superintendent of the Union Stock Yards (designing Sherman’s house was what led to the other commissions for the young firm; Sherman was an influential man).

The sensational story of Marshall Field, Jr.’s shooting and death was mentioned in passing (his posh former mansion, after standing decrepit for decades, has recently been renovated into a condo complex).  Also briefly mentioned was the classiest brothel in The Levee, the Everleigh Club near 21st and Dearborn, where Field, Jr.’s shooting is said to have happened (the chic sisters always denied it, but the story slipped out anyway). Frankly, at least two of us wondered why our guide didn’t rely on Karen Abbott’s book Sin in the Second City about the Everleigh sisters as well as on Larson’s book, given that Abbott told more of the story about young Field’s death and about the Levee district than Larson did.  Indeed, as Abbott covered at lot of the same street turf, it would have made sense; but we received no enlightenment on that point.  Soon, we moved on.

Next, we drove past the former Automobile Row on South Michigan Avenue, bypassing today’s McCormick Place convention and exposition complex and moving through Bronzeville down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.  From there, we headed south on Cottage Grove Avenue to Washington Park and the Hyde Park area, past sculptor Lorado Taft’s famous multifigure monument, the Fountain of Time and thence east along Midway Plaisance toward Lake Michigan and Jackson Park, the former site of the fair.  Taft, who taught at the Art Institute, was another artist whom Burnham knew well; several of his lesser works were suggested for some of the fair’s buildings.  When in later years Burnham bemoaned the fact that the Great Lakes, without which Chicago would never have become a great city, went completely unmentioned at the Columbian Exposition, Taft’s answer to Burnham’s complaint was the Fountain of the Great Lakes, which was installed next to the Art Institute in 1919 and still stands in its South Garden today – right at the Gateway to Route 66, a marker for the eastern terminus.

Along Midway Plaisance, we noted an ice skating rink where the enormous Ferris Wheel once thrilled riders (many years ago when the rink was being built, construction workers accidentally discovered some of the concrete footings that had supported the giant wheel – which is how we know today exactly where it stood).  Our guide next pointed out the place where belly dancer “Little Egypt” once charmed the crowds and where Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, denied a concession inside the fair, entertained the public outside near the Midway.  That had been the fiefdom of Sol Bloom, a canny young man from San Francisco who had run the Midway and arranged all the sideshows on it.  Right nearby at Stony Island Avenue, near what had been the main entrance to the fair, was the spot where young Hermann Berghoff and his brothers – also denied a concession inside because they were from Indiana then – had a beer stand and introduced thirsty crowds to their Dortmunder-style beer.  They were so successful at the fair that they later opened a bar and café on Adams Street (we’d hear more about that later).  We were also reminded – as Larson noted in his book – that ever since the Columbian Exposition, every carnival held here has always had a Ferris wheel and a Midway.

Museum of Science and Industry from the lagoon side  (Photo courtesy of Urbanrules via Wikimedia Commons)

Museum of Science and Industry in Jackson Park, from the lagoon side  (Photo courtesy of Urbanrules via Wikimedia Commons)

Our last tour stop was at the neoclassical style Museum of Science and Industry, which in a more primitive state had served as the Palace of Fine Arts for the exhibition, then as the original site of the Field Museum.  It was later more solidly rebuilt to serve as a place to display all the science exhibits saved from the fair.  This was done at the behest of Sears, Roebuck & Co. chairman and CEO Julius Rosenwald, a philanthropist who had lived in nearby Kenwood for many years and before the fair had also helped to start the second iteration of the University of Chicago, whose campus eventually subsumed the fair’s Midway (Rosenwald is often forgotten as a benefactor of the university).

Our bus drove around the east side of the museum and past it to a small meadow southeast of it, where we parked and took a walk around; that gave us the best view of the museum’s impressive south façade and the lagoon.  From there, we could also see the bridge to the Wooded Island, where during the fair a Japanese teahouse stood that had so impressed and influenced the young Frank Lloyd Wright, whom Burnham knew well (Wright and his first wife Catherine used to visit the Burnhams in Evanston and go sleigh riding with them in winter; Burnham had even tried to recruit Wright after he left Adler & Sullivan, but Wright had politely declined and opened his own studio in Oak Park instead).

The Wooded Island hasn’t fared very well in recent years, its trees having been decimated by disease and brutal weather.  Its western shore that morning looked almost as forbidding as the entire park had when Burnham first showed the area to the fair’s board of architects in January 1891.  All the East Coasters had been sure that chilly day that Burnham and the by then ill and aging Frederick Law Olmsted would never get the site ready in time for the fair.  Yet despite everything, they had.

The museum building, on the other hand, has only improved since the fair ended.  The sun shone brightly and the air was crisp as we looked upon this magnificent structure.  Shivering in the unseasonably cold March weather but still enjoying ourselves, we could only imagine the magnificence of the entire fairgrounds and the great lagoon, the remnants of which still circle the Wooded Island (the island, unfortunately, was inaccessible that day, as it and the connecting bridge were under repair; in fact, a goodly section of Jackson Park is being renovated and replanted this year).  For my part, I wondered if those East Coast architects had shivered as much as we did.

Statue of the Republic, Jackson Park, Chicago (J.Crocker via Wikimedia Commons)

Statue of the Republic by Daniel Chester French  (photo courtesy of J. Crocker via Wikimedia Commons)

Before we headed back to CAF, we circled through Jackson Park to catch a glimpse of the reproduced, one-third size gilded Statue of the Republic by sculptor Daniel Chester French, a famous landmark of the world’s fair (Burnham would later recommend him as the sculptor for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC; Burnham as urban planner was involved in the renovation and expansion of the National Mall, another dry run for the Chicago Plan).  The original golden Republic – which the fair’s construction workers called Big Mary – had been three times taller and had stood on a pedestal overlooking the fair’s Court of Honor, situated around the grand lagoon.  Unfortunately, the statue wasn’t permanent and hadn’t been saved after the fair but instead had been toppled into the enormous lagoon, which was later mostly filled in, greatly diminishing the former water entry to the fair.  Our final view of the park was from Lake Shore Drive, which our driver took back downtown, giving us a marvelous view of Burnham’s green legacy.

After returning to the CAF bookstore, we all walked down blustery Adams Street westward to the Berghoff Restaurant, where we delighted in German and continental cuisine and the café’s famous beer.  Happily inside, we indulged in sausages, schnitzel, sauerbraten and strudel.  While awaiting our late lunch, we were also treated to a short talk by a staff member about the history of the restaurant and its founder, Hermann Berghoff, who just happened to sell beer at the Columbian Exposition.  Coincidence?  We think not! Especially as the murals circling the upper walls of our dining room were all views from that same world’s fair.

The Berghoff Restaurant and Berghoff Cafe (photo copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

The Berghoff Restaurant and Cafe  (photo copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

We highly recommend that you take this CAF tour if you get the chance.  But pick a warmer day: you don’t need to go quite as far as we did in retracing the steps of Burnham and his collaborators.  And have fun!

ps – As if to underscore the ongoing popularity of Route 66, as we were walking from CAF to the Berghoff, Joe and I noticed someone trying to photograph himself with the Begin Historic Route 66 sign on Adams Street.  It turned out he was a very enthusiastic twentysomething Frenchman who had been saving for a trip down Route 66 for years.  “This is my dream!” he told us.

I mentioned to him that this isn’t actually the place where Route 66 began.  When he asked where it really was, we directed him around the corner to the correct spot at Jackson and Michigan next to the Art Institute’s South Garden (and when he asked us to tell him more about the route, I handed him my business card with the blog address on it, cheeky thing that I am).  With a big smile, he grabbed me by the shoulders and kissed me European-style on both cheeks and left me with a hug before shaking hands with Joe (equally enthusiastically), then he rang up a friend – presumably in France! – and shot a selfie with me in front of the sign so that he could transmit it to his pal.  It was all very sweet and heartwarming (he also promised to read the blog and spread the word about it in France when he got back; hey, it never hurts to have good word of mouth).  We all thanked each other, then we sent him merrily on his way while we hot-footed it to Berghoff’s for late lunch.  You just never know who you’ll meet on the route.

Until next time,
your own Route 66 tour guides, Marie and Joe


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