Monday, October 13, 2008


Today, October 13, is the official Columbus Day Holiday, though when I was a kid we celebrated it on the 12th, not necessarily on a Monday. Of course, today it’s PC to call it Native American Day or some other generic holiday.

In the late 19th Century there were no such qualms. The 400th Anniversary of Columbus’ landing was commemorated with a spectacular world’s fair in Chicago. The fact that it opened in 1893 rather on the actual anniversary the year before was due to the logistics of the fair itself, and not a statement of policy.

I’m reading a fascinating book about the fair, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. It was recommended to me by our new Port Director, John Leonard, originally from Boston, after I gave him a tour of our San Francisco Custom House and described construction techniques used for San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific Exhibition in 1914-15, compared with the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1903 and the earlier Chicago World’s Fair. They were basically stage sets composed of plaster of Paris, paper mache and chicken wire. It’s amazing they survived a single rain storm, let alone an entire season. The only building still standing from 1915 is Maybeck’s Palace of Fine Arts, which was rebuilt in concrete about fifty years ago, and was just recently restored for many millions of dollars.

Back to the White City in Chicago: the book is utterly gripping. It’s a fact-filled combination of architectural history and Sweeney Todd, or Jack the Ripper. I’m only half way through, but it’s an amazing tale.

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