Aboard the Olympic on April 12, 1912, the same night that the Titanic sinks, Daniel Hudson Burnham contemplates his years planning the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, held to honor the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America.
In 1890, Chicago is a rapidly growing city and eager to prove itself to the more established Eastern cities of the United States. Propelled by its huge civic pride, Chicago wins its bid to host the World’s Fair. Soon after, two of the city’s leading architects, Daniel Burnham and John Root, are given artistic control over the buildings at the Fair.
At the same time that Burnham and Root are assembling an architectural team, a young, handsome, blue-eyed doctor who calls himself H. H. Holmes arrives in Chicago. Holmes, who was born Herman Mudgett, is immensely attractive to women, in part because he breaks the traditional rules of courtship. He has already married a woman named Clara, but he abandons her quickly. In Chicago, he enjoys the disgusting smells of the slaughterhouses that are the major industry of the city, and quickly purchases a drugstore that becomes popular because he attracts female customers. Holmes marries a woman named Myrta while he’s still married to Clara, but immediately begins to neglect her. He uses forgery and deception to buy a nearby building, which he converts into a grim hotel. Despite the fact that the building contains rooms and equipment that are clearly designed for murder, Holmes attracts very little attention, since he fires workers frequently, and since Chicagoans can’t imagine that a serial killer could live in their city. From the workers he hires, he assembles a group of accomplices that includes Benjamin Pitezal and Charles Chappell. He forges the signature of Myrta’s wealthy great-uncle, Jonathan, and invites him to stay in his new hotel. Long afterwards, Jonathan thinks that Holmes tried and failed to kill him in the middle of the night.
Burnham and Root painstakingly assemble a team of renowned architects from around the country, including Charles McKim, Frederick Olmsted, and Louis Sullivan, and they begin to work on their designs for the Fair. The group agrees to hold the exposition on the grounds of Jackson Park, overlooking Lake Michigan. Root dies suddenly; Burnham, while crushed by his friend’s passing, resolves to continue working on the Fair. The architects unveil their buildings for the Fair, and Burnham urges them to work together, so that no one building outdoes the others. Sullivan angrily objects to the neoclassical style of the World’s Fair, but the other architects agree to this aesthetic. Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York, travels around to New York and Europe in search of flowers and exotic boats to decorate the grounds of Jackson Park, arguing with Burnham frequently. Burnham, who is enormously stressed by the prospect of building an entire city in only two years, supervises the construction of the buildings at the World’s Fair, negotiating with unions and his overly bureaucratic board of directors.
In 1897, Carter Henry Harrison, the popular mayor of Chicago, loses his election for a fifth term. This disappoints Patrick Prendergast, a young, mentally ill man who believes that Harrison would have given him a government position in return for his help in Harrison’s campaign. In 1893, Harrison wins a fifth term, and Prendergast travels around Chicago, claiming that he will be appointed the corporation counsel.
While the World’s Fair is being built, Holmes attracts visitors from around the country to his “World’s Fair Hotel,” located near Jackson Park. These visitors include Ned and Julia Conner, and Julia’s sister, Gertrude. Holmes seduces Gertrude and cons Ned into taking ownership of his failing drugstore; both leave the hotel, disgusted and disillusioned. Holmes next charms Julia, impregnates her, and murders her in his basement. Holmes also murders Emeline Cigrand, a beautiful woman who finds him attractive. Though Holmes kills her in his hotel, he attracts very little attention from the lodgers. While traveling in Boston, he meets Minnie R. Williams, the heiress to a large amount of land; Holmes seduces Minnie, brings her back to Chicago, and murders her, along with her sister, Anna.
Burnham, who urges the architects and engineers of America to build a structure that can match the Eiffel Tower in Paris, awards a Fair concession to George Ferris, the designer of the Ferris Wheel. Design on the Wheel proceeds slowly; meanwhile, other buildings are damaged by rain and snow. Burnham’s friend Francis Millet suggests that the buildings be painted white, giving them a distinctive appearance that earns the World’s Fair the nickname “the white city.” In addition to the Ferris Wheel, exhibits planned for the World’s Fair include motion pictures, exotic dancers, and light bulbs — visitors are shocked, entertained, and awestruck. Buffalo Bill brings his Wild West show nearby, drawing tourists away from the Fair. Burnham argues with the board of directors, which, pressured by the failure of numerous banks in the economic recession of 1893, wants to control all the Fair’s expenditures. When the Fair is opened in 1893, it loses money at first, but after the Ferris Wheel is completed and Francis Millet and Sol Bloom organize entertaining dances and exhibits for the Midway, it slowly becomes financially profitable. Shortly before the end of the World’s Fair, Patrick Prendergast shoots and assassinates Mayor Harrison because he’s angry that Harrison didn’t make him corporation counsel. This tragedy overshadows the end of the World’s Fair.
As the World’s Fair ends, Holmes sets fire to his hotel in order to collect a large insurance claim. Insurance investigators are skeptical, and his creditors chase him out of town. Holmes kills Benjamin Pitezal, and is eventually arrested when another insurance company investigates Pitezal’s death. Detective Frank Geyer follows Holmes’s path through Indianapolis and Toronto, and uncovers evidence that he has murdered three of Pitezal’s children. Although Holmes denies these crimes, and writes a memoir in which he tries to make himself seem sympathetic, he is sentenced to death. At the end of his life, he claims that he is transforming into the Devil, and various people associated with his execution die mysteriously.
Burnham becomes the greatest architect of his day, and the World’s Fair influences American science and culture in uncountable ways. Sitting on the Olympic, Burnham learns that Francis Millet, who was riding on the Titanic on April 12, has died; Burnham dies shortly afterward. He is buried in Chicago nearby Root, his wife, Sullivan, and Mayor Harrison.