devil in the windy city
At PoshPorts we strive to bring you new and different things to do and experience when you're exploring new destinations or even your own home town. One of the things that we love exploring in new places is historical sites and landmarks. We recently discovered a unique tour group in our own home town. Weird Chicago offers several tours that are sure to be different way to experience Chicago.
We chose the Devil in the White City tour one Saturday afternoon. Although it was a rather deary and cold day we set out learn more about the people and events detailed in the book written by Erik Larsen, Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, which has captured the imaginations of many Chicagoans and others far beyond the Windy City's borders. The book interweaves the story of a cunning serial killer running rampant in the city with the people, places and events surrounding the the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World's Fair).
Our tour guide Sunny was thoroughly engaging and had a vast knowledge of the book, the city and the surrounding history. She added in plenty of juicy tidbits really to give us the feeling that we were back in the late 1800's.
For those of you who haven't read the book The Devil in the White City you would still find this tour engaging as the tour takes you to some off the beaten path historical locations around Chicago that are still interesting today and well worth visiting.
Daniel Burnham H.H. Holmes
For a little background, the book is based on events that occurred leading up to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. It chronicles the stories of two men, the architect Daniel H. Burnham, who oversaw the building of the fair's construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who used the backdrop of the World's Fair to create a "murder castle" in which he spelled the demise of perhaps hundreds of innocent victims. The book is unique in that intertwines both men's point of view throughout. It is historically based, but there are so many unknowns in the telling that it reads like a novel. At times you find yourself wanting to learn more about the myriad troubles that Burnham had trying to complete construction of the magical "White City" with limited budget and a ridiculous two year schedule. Conversely, you get swept up in the evil web Holmes beguilingly weaves to lure unsuspecting young ladies into his lair.
The tour's first stop is the Rookery Building at 209 South La Salle Street. Built by Daniel Burnham and John Root it originally housed their offices. The building is mentioned in the book as the place where the firm first heard the news that Chicago was awarded the World's Fair and watched the city's celebration through its windows. The building also has its place in Chicago's architectural history. It is considered to be the oldest standing high-rise building in Chicago, at 181 feet or twelve stories.
If you get the chance you should check out the lobby which was remodeled in 1905 by Frank Lloyd Wright, another famous Chicago architect.
We then went to The Congress Plaza Hotel on Michigan Avenue. Now, when you first enter the hotel it may seem a bit ramshackle but you will be surprised by the amazing architectural details of this building. Original mosaics and ornate archways in the lobby provide an interesting back drop to the story. Originally known as the Auditorium Annex, the hotel was built with an underground marble passageway called "Peacock Alley" that connected it to architect Louis Sullivan's Auditorium Building across the street and was used to usher many notable individuals between the two. As the story continues, Holmes often went to the hotel to meet unsuspecting young women who stayed in the luxurious accommodations during the World's Fair and convinced them to come and stay at his World's Fair Hotel, which he told them was much closer to the fairgrounds and, of course, much cheaper.
The hotel also has a storied past being host to U.S.Presidents and dignitaries, being often referred to as the "Home of Presidents" among Chicago hotels. Many Presidents, including Cleveland, McKinley, T. Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolridge and F. Roosevelt used the hotel. It features a magnificent banquet hall called the Gold Room, which was the first ballroom in the United States to use air-conditioning. In more recent years the hotel's claim to fame has been the speculation of hauntings. Sunny shared several ghost stories while we relaxed at the bar. If you're interested in the supernatural, Weird Chicago also has several ghost and haunting tours available.
We made a quick stop at Jane Addams' Hull House, a place of aid and support, which also reportedly has had multiple ghost sightings and a most intriguing story about a "devil baby" that quickly caught attention from all.
Moving along, we went to the location of the Union Stockyards. The meat packing district in Chicago for over a century, this spot was also a stopping point for H.H. Holmes and the discovery of his love for blood and gore. The only thing that remains physically on the site is the gate to the stockyards over Exchange Avenue. However, the methods of the big three Chicago meatpackers of the times, Armour, Swift and Morris has left an indelible print on business even today. There is also a firefighters memorial that was crafted in 2005 to commemorate the lives of the 21 firemen who lost their lives in the line of duty here during a fire on December 22, 1910. The firemen risked their lives trying to save animals during the blaze. Speaking of fire, Sunny also gave us a history of the Great Chicago Fire and the various theories that have been associated with its start. The most recent, and plausible, cause surprised even us.
The Stockyards closed in 1971 with the decentralization of the meat packing industry.
We then made our way to the south side to see the site of the building that was notoriously known as Holmes' "Murder Castle." Interestingly, it's now a post office. Sunny filled us in on what else went on in the neighborhood, pointed out the grocery store across the street that once was the pharmacy where Holmes earlier lured ladies into his den of death. We must say that the stories truly sent chills down our spines.
We moved on toward the lakefront through the Midway Plaisance and Jackson Park to the Museum of Science & Industry, the only building that remains from the 1893 World's Fair. It's difficult to imagine how immense the undertaking was to create the "White City" of temporary plaster builidngs that would have filled a huge area that was once nothing more than marsh land. There we explored the Osaka Japanese Gardens, also built for the World's Fair, which we imagine would be absolutely beautiful during the spring and summer. The Gardens were vandalized during World War II but later refurbished by the city of Osaka, Japan.
As we wrapped up the tour it was amazing that even a seasoned Chicagoan like myself could still learn so much about the Second City. Sunny mentioned that her company also provides tours on Chicago's gangsters, red light district, hauntings, civil war, music, and sports history, all with a twist and nod to the weird. If you're in Chicago, whether living here or on a visit, and want to do something completely different and engaging, check out Weird Chicago at www.WeirdChicago.com and take one of their "weird" tours. You're sure to learn something surprising. And use this special offer from Weird Chicago mention "PoshPorts" when you book your tours and get $6.00 off the price of a regular $30.00 reservation, limit of 4 people.