On the same night the Titanic sinks, April 12, 1912, Daniel Hudson Burnham is aboard the Olympic as he thinks about his years planning the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, which was held in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America.
Chicago is a rapidly growing city in 1890, and it is eager to prove itself to the already established Eastern cities of the US. Chicago wins its bid to host the World’s Fair because of its huge civic pride. Then, Daniel Burnham and John Root, Chicago’s leading architects, receive artistic control over the buildings at the Fair.
When Burnham and Root are trying to assemble a team, a doctor who introduces himself H. H. Holmes arrives in Chicago. Holmes, however, was born Herman Mudgett. Women are attracted to him, partly since he doesn’t follow the traditional rules of courtship. He is already married to a woman named Clara, but he quickly abandons her. Interestingly enough, Holmes enjoys the putrid smells of the slaughterhouses that are the major industrial core of the Chicago. Holmes quickly purchases a drugstore that becomes popular since he attracts a lot female customers. Holmes marries a lady named Myrta (he’s still married to Clara), but immediately begins to neglect Myrta. He forges and deceives his way to a nearby building, which he remodels into a grim hotel. Even though the building contains rooms and equipment that are clearly for murder, Holmes attracts very little attention, since many Chicagoans can’t imagine that a serial killer could live there.
From his workers, Holmes assembles a group of accomplices, including Benjamin Pitezel and Charles Chappell. He fakes the signature of Myrta’s wealthy great-uncle and invites him to stay in his new hotel. Long afterward, Jonathan believes that Holmes tried but failed to kill him inthe night.
Burnham and Root slowly assemble a team of renowned architects, including Charles McKim, Frederick Olmsted, and Louis Sullivan, and they start on their designs for the Fair. They agree to hold the exposition on the grounds of Jackson Park, which overlooks Lake Michigan. Root dies, but Burnham resolves to continue on designing the Fair buildings. The architects present their building designs, but Burnham doesn’t want one building to outdo the others. Sullivan doesn't like the neoclassical style of the World’s Fair, but other architects like the aesthetic. Olmsted, the designer New York’s Central Park, travels around, looking for flowers and exotic boats to decorate Jackson Park. Burnham, who is understandably stressed by building a city in two years, supervises the construction of the buildings, negotiating with unions and his board of directors.In 1897, Carter Henry Harrison, the popular mayor of Chicago, surprisingly loses his election for a fifth term. This disappoints Patrick Prendergast, a mentally ill man.
While the World’s Fair is being built, Holmes attracts visitors to his “World’s Fair Hotel.” Ned and Julia Conner and Julia’s sister, Gertrude all come to his hotel. Holmes tempts Gertrude and tricks Ned into buying his failing drugstore; both leave, disgusted and disillusioned. Holmes charms Julia, impregnates her, and then murders her. Holmes also murders Emeline Cigrand, another beautiful woman. Holmes attracts very little attention from the lodgers even while murdering these people. In Boston, he meets Minnie Williams, a wealthy heiress; Holmes seduces her, brings her back to Chicago, and murders her, along with her sister, Anna.
Burnham, who wants to build a structure that can match the Eiffel Tower, awards a Fair concession to George Ferris. Design on the Wheel is slow; meanwhile, other buildings are damaged by rain and snow. Burnham’s friend Francis Millet advises that the buildings be painted white, giving them a distinctive appearance that earns the nickname “the white city.” In addition to the Ferris Wheel, exhibits planned include motion pictures, exotic dancers, and light bulbs — visitors are entertained and awestruck. Buffalo Bill brings his Wild West show nearby and draws tourists away. Burnham argues with the board of directors, which wants to control all expenditures. When the Fair is opened, it loses money, but after the Ferris Wheel is completed and some other exhibits are organized, it slowly becomes profitable. Before the end of the Fair, Prendergast assassinates Mayor Harrison because Harrison didn’t make him corporation counsel.
As the Fair ends, Holmes sets his hotel on fire to collect a large insurance claim. However, insurance investigators are skeptical. Holmes kills Benjamin Pitezel, and is arrested when another insurance company investigates his death. Detective Frank Geyer follows Holmes through Indianapolis and Toronto, and finds that he has murdered three of Pitezel’s children. Although Holmes denies it and writes a memoir, seeming sympathetic, he is sentenced to death. He claims that he is changing into the Devil, and people involved with his execution die.
Burnham becomes the greatest architect of his day, and the World’s Fair changes American science and culture in many ways. On the Olympic, Burnham learns that Francis Millet, who was on the Titanic, died; Burnham dies afterward.