Summary: Chapter 13: Vexed

Burnham struggles and rarely sees his family. The sheer size of the Fair makes it difficult to see much progress. The relationship worsens between the two authoritative bodies: the National Commission and the Exposition Company. William Baker replaces Lyman Gage as president of the Fair. None of the architects deliver their drawings to Chicago on time. The quality of the soil in Jackson Park hinders construction, especially at the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building site.

Carter Henry Harrison narrowly loses the mayoral election in April 1891. Burnham is pleased because he thinks Harrison represents the dirty and unrefined “old Chicago” that he wants the Fair to transform. However, Prendergast mourns Harrison’s loss and resolves to work even harder to help Harrison win the next election. He still believes he will receive a government job in return for his vigorous campaigning.

A battle ensues over how to illuminate the Fair. General Electric bids for the direct current system developed by Thomas Edison. Westinghouse Electric bids for alternating current, developed by Nikola Tesla, which is cheaper and more efficient. Westinghouse wins the bid. Meanwhile, Burnham continues to face setbacks. Olmsted falls seriously ill in June. Manure in the soil causes the ground to sink after rain. The architects do not complete their drawings until mid-summer 1891, and Burnham secures bids from companies to build the plans. To cut delays, he writes himself into the contracts as a czar, with power to hire, impose deadline penalties, and arbitrate disputes. Real work finally begins on July 3, 1891, with less than sixteen months remaining.

Burnham seeks a building to rival the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Only when Alexandre Gustave Eiffel himself proposes to build a taller tower do the American engineers speak out passionately, advocating for an American engineer. Still, nobody presents a feasible idea.

Sol Bloom of San Francisco wants to bring an Algerian village to the Fair. The Fair’s Ways and Means Committee rebuffs him, so he takes the idea to Mike De Young, one of the exposition’s commissioners and the mayor of San Francisco. De Young knows Bloom is a young entrepreneur and convinces the Exposition Company to hire him for concessions over the Midway Plaisance. Bloom is not particularly interested in this role, so he asks for a salary much too high, certain this request will keep him in California. He is approved.

Burnham anticipates threats to the Fair. He instills a large police force and fire department, and bans smoking. To prevent disease, he plans a water-sterilization plant. He strengthens the buildings’ designs to withstand high winds.