Movie news of the century!

Leonardo DiCaprio stands before a bird's-eye view of the White City. (Curbed)

Leonardo DiCaprio stands before a bird’s-eye view of the White City. (Curbed)

Return of the White City! World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 recaptured in celloid! Beaux Arts classical architecture writ large as the silver screen!

Sex, violence, megalomania and beauty? That too!

Nothing excites me more than news from that one of my favorite books, Erik Larson’s historical novel Devil and the White City, is finally going to be produced. “Devil in the Details: Can Scorcese and DiCaprio recreate Devil in the White City?” is the tart headline, and hats off and far up in the air to architect Robie Wood for sending this story in to titillate the tremulosities of the classicists at TradArch.

DiCaprio will play the villain, serial killer H.H. Holmes, who was subject of the first megamurder trial in the nation’s history. The blackguard Holmes built a hotel to accommodate guests flooding into Chicago for the Exposition – some 28 million visitors, a quarter of the nation’s population in 1893. But his hotel had rooms not just to house but to murder guests, especially his “girlfriends,” and “render” their remains for disposal.

Louise McNamara sends additional horror from Britain’s Daily Mail:

Ahead of the 1893 Chicago World Fair, Holmes designed and built a hotel nearby specifically for torturing and killing staff and guests. Subsequently named the Murder Castle, the three-story labyrinthine structure had rooms for gassing, incinerating, asphyxiating and hanging people, as well as giant furnaces, acid vats and lime pits for disposing of their bodies.

Convicted of murdering 27, he may have dispatched up to 200 victims.

I have little doubt that Hollywood, Scorcese, DiCaprio et al. are capable of sending the appropriate chills up the spine of the movie-going public. The question – and the “devil in the details” referred to in the Curbed headline – is whether they will be able to recreate, in detail, the White City. It was designed by the world’s top Beaux Arts architects and was so movingly lovely that it sparked the City Beautiful Movement that brought classical architecture to city centers throughout the nation.

Later, after modern architecture had demolished the City Beautiful Movement, modernist icon Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (father of the glass box) liked to say “The devil is in the details.” And of course generations of architecture oafs have lionized him for such profundities.

Almost all of the White City’s 14 major and scores of minor buildings were made of “a mixture of plaster, cement, and jute fiber called staff,” according to Wikipedia. The place was intended to be demolished after the exposition’s conclusion, and indeed it burned down before it could be razed. That leaves me, at any rate, with a fond hope that Hollywood is fully capable of creating a believable set, and that we’ll be able to enter the White City again. Perhaps this will put some real oomph into the classical revival!

Curbed’s writer, Patrick Sisson, proposed some actors to play certain roles, including many of the starchitects of that era. Here are his suggestions:

  • Daniel Burnham – Nick Offerman
  • John Root – Kiefer Sutherland
  • Geo. Washington Ferris – George Cloony
  • Sophia Hayden Bennett – Lizzy Caplan
  • Louis Sullivan – Jeff Goldblum
  • Frederick Law Olmsted – Anthony Hopkins

Curbed did not say when the film is scheduled for release.


About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
This entry was posted in Architects, Architecture, Books and Culture, Urbanism and planning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Movie news of the century!

  1. Rick Schwartz says:

    Such a great book. I hope the filmmakers don’t screw it up.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.