Chapter 2 begins in February 1890 with Chicago citizens, many outside the office of the Tribune, eagerly awaiting official word on the future location of the 1893 World's Fair. New York, Washington, and St. Louis also have put in bids for the fair, and the scent of competition is in the air. As the city buzzes with anticipation, two important characters are introduced: John Root, prodigal architect, and his partner, Daniel Burnham. The partners also wait to hear whether Chicago will win the bid for the fair. It's implied that unofficially, Burnham and Root already have been given the job of building the fair should Chicago win the bid. The chapter moves back and forth between flashbacks of Burnham's and Root's lives and scenes of Chicago anxious to get news of the winner.
Meanwhile, as the city awaits word of the site of the future 1893 fair, a flashback reveals more background information on Daniel Burnham, John Root, and their relationship. Daniel Burnham, born in New York mid-century, moves to Chicago at the age of nine. With the help of his father, Burnham studies to get into Harvard and Yale but fails both tests. After trying out a few cities and a few jobs, Burnham finally goes back to architecture in Chicago with the urging of his father. Later, he meets John Root, and they eventually build a successful firm together. The men are the perfect complement to each other, with Burnham, a proven and quality architect, being the public relations and business genius, and Root being the skilled and talented architectural genius.
The flashback also gives background information about how Burnham and Root met their wives. The owner of the Union Stockyards, John Sherman, asks Burnham and Root to design his house in Chicago in 1874. The construction site is where Burnham meets Sherman's daughter, Margaret, and eventually asks her to marry him. John Root also meets his first wife in relation to this job. He first marries Mary Walker, daughter of the president of the stock yards. She soon thereafter dies of tuberculosis. Later, Root marries one of the bridesmaids, Dora Monroe, sister of poet Harriet Monroe.
In the rest of the flashback, the growth of Burnham's and Root's prominence in the architectural world and Burnham's family is described. Work opportunities are abundant for this pair, but they are not without challenges and setbacks, too. For example, they design the Montauk, the first skyscraper. However, they lose the opportunity to build an auditorium in Chicago to Louis Sullivan. Later, Burnham also moves his growing family of five children to Evanston, a bit away from the city, out of growing concern for his children's safety.
At the end of Chapter 2, the action moves back to that day in February as the crowd outside the Tribune and the rest of the city of Chicago, including Burnham and Root, finally receive word that the city, indeed, has won the bid to hold the 1893 World's Fair. Immediately, Chicago creates a company, the World's Columbian Exposition Company, to develop the fair. The fair is to be a celebration of the 400-year anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America. Chicago explodes in celebration of its victory.
This chapter serves many purposes. For one, in a series of flashbacks, the reader is introduced to other important characters in the novel, such as John Root and Margaret Sherman Burnham. The chapter also offers more background information about Daniel Burnham and a more in-depth look into his personality characteristics and traits. The author strategically paints a multi-faceted picture of Burnham. On one hand, he is portrayed as a determined and successful architect, one quite capable of handling the charge of building something as elaborate as the World's Fair. On the other hand, he never got into an Ivy League school despite his efforts. With these contrasts, the author slowly builds a complex character in Burnham. In one sense, Burnham is confident and quite capable of great feats, such as building the first skyscraper. In another, the architect lacks the confidence that accompanies an Ivy League education . . . a fact that haunts Burnham later in the novel. Additionally, the author portrays Burnham as a moral and good man, shown in Burnham's speaking with John Sherman about breaking off Burnham's engagement with Sherman's daughter. Burnham's brother has created scandal for the family, and Burnham thinks Sherman would not want his daughter marrying into such disrepute. The author builds up Burnham as a good, moral, and determined character so that Burnham represents the good, to be contrasted with the evil that Holmes represents as the novel progresses.
In contrast to the morally declining picture of Chicago that the previous chapter paints, Chapter 2 creates a different mood and atmosphere of Chicago during the same era. While this chapter makes references to the negative happenings in Chicago in the late 1800s, the positive overshadows it. Chapter 2 portrays Chicago as a city full of pride and introduces pride as a theme that also runs through the novel. The chapter shows Chicago as a world leader that is growing economically and socially, despite setbacks, such as depression and the great Chicago Fire of 1871. This is Burnham's Chicago. This image of Chicago serves in contrast to the Chicago of lust, greed, and murder: Holmes's Chicago.