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architectural art from chicago
Daniel Hudson Burnham

Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912)

Daniel H. Burnham was one of the earliest modern city planners and, with his partner, John Wellborn Root, the architect of the first American skyscrapers. At his death in 1912, Frank Lloyd Wright eulogized, "(Burnham) was not a creative architect, but he was a great man."

Burnham was a popular and athletic student who always regretted failing his admissions tests for entering both Harvard and Yale. After an aborted attempt at politics out west, he returned to Chicago to apprentice as a draftsman at the architectural firm of William Le Baron Jenney. Soon after, his social skills from high school served him well in the firm of Carter, Drake and Wight where he befriended a quiet fellow draftsman, John Wellborn Root.

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, any architect who could lift a compass was conscripted into the gigantic effort to rebuild the city. In 1873 Burnham abruptly left his menial position to start his own firm with John Root, a sharp mechanical mind with no interest in people skills. Each personality seemed to complete the other, Burnham acting as the dreamer and political conduit, Root, the astute draftsman and physics whiz. One of their first commissions was for a Prairie Avenue house for John Sherman, a wealthy industrialist who would conveniently become Burnham"s new father-in-law.

With Sherman's civic connections and Burnham's charisma, Burnham and Root quickly assumed a leading role in designing houses for Chicago's wealthiest families. Corporate clients in the Loop, however, catapulted the firm into a far more important level of influence and fame.

Boston brothers Peter and Shepherd Brooks were cost driven clients who disdained expensive ornament. Burnham and Root provided them a stripped-down ten story office building, "The Montauk," that set the standard for simple structurally expressive structures. Five years later, the same clients financed a more extravagant speculative building on LaSalle Street that became an instant landmark and the most important office building in the Loop.

The Rookery

The Rookery of 1886 was constructed in a dual technique using load bearing exterior walls and an interior skeleton of cast and wrought iron. Four wings surrounded a central light well with modern curtain walls of white glazed brick horizontally layered with ribbons of windows. A glass roof over the stunning lobby enabled every part of the building to receive maximum sunlight. The simplicity and efficiency of the plan was, like all Burnham and Root collaborations, Daniel Burnham's most important contribution.

Often accused by later critics of being merely the politician of the firm, Root being the REAL architect, Daniel Burnham was a planner to his bones. Where John Root was the supreme tactician, able to translate plans and programs into practical architectonics, Burnham was best at strategic thinking. Solving problems beautifully is the fundamental craft of architecture, and Burnham solved any problem with the same supreme organization skills that propelled his business into the front ranks of the profession. Burnham and Root became the establishment firm for Chicago's business elite, designing their offices in the Loop and their houses in the suburbs.

After Root's premature death from pneumonia in 1891, Burnham planned the enormous World's Columbian Exposition on Chicago's south lakefront. The largest world's fair to that date, it celebrated the 400 year anniversary of Columbus' voyage to the new world. In 1909, the Commercial Club sponsored the Plan of Chicago , again headed by Burnham who donated his services in hopes of achieving more of his own aims. Using some of his south lakefront plans and conceptual designs as a base, he envisioned a new Chicago as a "Paris on the Prairie" with French inspired public works constructions, fountains and boulevards radiating from a central, domed municipal palace.

Root's death had altered Burnham's aesthetic compass and he no longer felt constrained by the pragmatic utility of Chicago School construction. Greece and Rome became his models for the world's newest empire. He even sent his sons to Paris' Ecole des Beaux-Arts for their grounding in Classical technique. The fair had introduced middle America to a grandiose Beaux-Arts "salad" of colonnades, domes, arches and vistas. Bankers and corporate chieftains wanted just the same Olympian grandeur for their new edifices and his renamed "D.H. Burnham & Company" was only too glad to accommodate their historicist tastes. Perhaps he was making up for his lack of a college education and its classical curriculum.

Louis Sullivan, considered the greatest architect of the Chicago School, never forgave Burnham for turning his back on pure structural expression in favor of the archaic classicism of the fair, calling it alternately "feudal" and "imperial." Feeling that it would "...set back architecture fifty years," he was nearly proved right as he watched his own career collapse after 1900 while corporate America and Daniel Burnham turned to Rome for inspiration. In his 1924 Autobiography of an Idea, Sullivan bitterly wrote: "(Burnham) was a colossal merchandiser whose megalomania concerning the largest, the tallest, the most costly and sensational, moved on in its sure orbit, as he painfully learned to use the jargon of big business."

At his death in 1912, Daniel Burnham's company was the world's largest architectural firm and had become the model for countless later firms that utilized global business techniques instead of the traditional, near Medieval methods of earlier architects. He had become the head of the American Institute of Architects and been named by President Taft to be Chairman of the Committee on the Fine Arts.

His sons, Hubert and Daniel Jr., eventually succeeded him, renaming the firm "Burnham Brothers" after completing the flamboyant Art Deco "Carbide and Carbon Building" on Michigan Avenue. Their Beaux-Arts training had been transformed by a new search for modernity that veered off into a streamlined vocabulary by the 1930s. Burnham's sons donated most of the records and drawings of their father to the Art Institute of Chicago, establishing the Burnham Library as one of the preeminent collections of architectural information in the world.

Frank Lloyd Wright, in his 1912 eulogy in Architectural Record , wrote: "(Burnham) made masterful use of the methods and men of his time...(as) an enthusiastic promoter of great construction enterprises...his powerful personality was supreme."


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Daniel Hudson Burnham drawing of architecturalIonic-style capital
Daniel H. Burnham
Entrance Detail
pencil and colored pencil
50 x 36 inches

Daniel Hudson Burnham drawing of architectural column
Daniel H. Burnham
Entrance Detail
pencil and colored pencil

Carbon and Carbide Building
Burnham Brothers
Carbide & Carbon Building, Chicago
Original design drawing
37 x 49 1/2 in.

carbide and carbon blueprint
Carbide and Carbon blueprint
cyanotype blueprint
49 1/2 x 37 inches

Original Hectographs by Burnham

Click here to link to Architectural Plans
Click here to link to Drawn From The Masters
Click here to link to Carbide and Carbon Building Page  
Click here to link to Burnham's Chicago  
Read the December 2003 Chicago Sun-Times review of Daniel Burnham's Chicago  


David Jameson
ArchiTech Gallery
730 North Franklin suite 200
Chicago, IL 60654

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