The buzz begins in 1889, with intense competition to host a world’s fair celebrating Columbus Day. The recent World Exposition in Paris was a stunning success, with the Eiffel Tower as its centerpiece. The American version is to debut in 1893 and the bidding is fierce, especially between Chicago and New York City. The stakes are tremendous: world renown and a massive infusion of revenue from increased tourism. In its final vote, Congress awards this opportunity of a lifetime to Chicago.
The most prominent Chicago architects gather to plan this massive undertaking, with the leadership of the firm of Burnham and Root. The architects are faced with an almost insurmountable task: to design the foundations, the grounds, the venues and, most important, an attraction that will equal the Eiffel Tower in innovation and grandeur.
A number of strong-willed personalities are forced to maintain decorum for the sake of the project, with one goal in mind -- the completion of the exposition. Daniel Burnham positions himself at the helm of this great enterprise, eventually wresting fiscal control and decision-making away from those with conflicting interests. Burnham is determined to see his vision for Chicago brought to life with the aid of his powerful cohorts, many of them captains of industry in Chicago, a city they see as the most impressive and powerful in America.
In a stroke of genius, the architects paint the buildings white, thus creating the mythological “White City”: a jewel set in a harsh landscape, a place of wonder and imagination where a troubled population can forget their troubles. While the White City is under construction, heinous crimes occur with increasing frequency, as consummate psychopath H.H. Holmes murders scores of unsuspecting young women. In one of the first recorded cases of serial murder, Holmes establishes himself in Chicago, building a residence-hotel and using his charms to seduce his victims, many of whom are assistants in his pharmacy or residents in his hotel. When Holmes’ crimes are finally uncovered, people are sickened that such a monster could live in their midst, plucking victims from the many tourists drawn to the wonder of the World’s Fair.
The contrasts between rich and poor and good and evil provide the fascination of this thoroughly researched work, especially the unremitting drive toward progress in Chicago, almost a definition of the American spirit and the amassing of great wealth through industrialization and monopolies. Entrepreneurs wake up to a new century of unparalleled opportunity for those in a position to avail themselves of such favorable circumstances; at the same time, the poor, uneducated and unemployed fall victim to the march of progress. Had the citizens been gifted with precognition, they would have seen a future of unprecedented leaps of industrialization and private fortunes, the gradual separation of classes through economics, education and opportunity.