Chicago. German Painter. White City.


It’s 1893. Chicago. Full of ambitious people eager to make their mark. It’s a rough, booming town.

Twenty-five year-old Alois Harschnek, trained in decorative carpentry and painting, has already left his West Prussian village of Märtzdorf for Berlin. Perhaps he’s been radicalized there. Later correspondence indicates his interest in anarchy and a newspaper clipping shows his small financial contribution to workers’ causes. At this time, however, Alois is looking for opportunity. Chicago’s Columbian Exposition beckons.

Soon to be known as the “White City” Chicago’s Columbian Exposition is a tour de force, putting the country’s second largest city on the cultural map. The city can hardly keep up with its growth - doubled in 10 years to over a million people.

It’s into this city that Alois, my great grandfather, arrives in Chicago as a new immigrant. We knew Alois had come to work on the Exposition and then had stayed (rather than his previous plan to go to Africa!). What was this city like?

Erik Larsen vividly brings to life the lead-up and aftermath of two Chicago tales, one of the exposition and its creative masterminds, the other of a mesmerizing sociopath and serial killer who preyed on the young women arriving by the scores to the burgeoning Chicago. The true account reads like breath-taking fiction. While the murder part has no particular bearing on my family’s story, the description of the city and events during the era create a remarkable tapestry for understanding Chicago when Alois first landed.

If you haven’t yet, get yourself a copy of Larsen’s best-selling Devil in the White City. Despite knowing about Alois’ work on the Columbian Exposition, and having spent many a summer day at the fair’s last remaining building (today’s Museum of Science and Industry), I had no idea that so many leading architects, such as Daniel Burnham, Richard Morris Hunt and Louis Sullivan, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, and the world’s first Ferris Wheel all played a significant role. Equally enlightening are the descriptions of the day-to-day life that the laborers (such as Alois) experienced.

Now whenever I look at Alois’ hand-gilded picture frame that I’ve inherited or his tools my mother has, I feel I can better understand a little bit of his world. And I’m inspired to learn more.

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The Columbian Exposition also inspired a Chicago theme park, the White City Amusement Park, which opened in 1905. In 1907 my maternal great-grandmother sends a postcard of their “chutes” ride, a park highlight, back to Silesia announcing her upcoming marriage to my mother’s other grandfather. Now that postcard has much richer significance, too.

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