Daniel H. Burnham

Burnham Circa 1900

Classical Anthemion drawing

Fisher Building construction

Ionic Capital

Burnham & Root Masonic Temple

Monadnock Elevation and Section

Palace of Fine Art

Pittsburgh Union Station

NYC Flatiron Building

Monadnock plan

Philadelphia Wanamakers

Burnham Circa 1890


The most influential architect in Chicago was not who might you think. Instead, it was Daniel H. Burnham who 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, “He was not a creative architect, but he was a great man.”

Less artistically innovative than Wright, he was nevertheless able to transfix the public with his vision of America as the greatest, newest empire and Chicago as its Acropolis. The city was more than ready to see itself through his lens rather than through the kaleidoscope of modernity that Wright gave it.

Daniel Hudson Burnham, born in Henderson, New York, on September 4th, 1846, was a popular and athletic student who always regretted failing his admissions tests for entering both Harvard and Yale. And 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 at Carter, Drake and Wight to start his own firm with 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 & 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.

Burnham & Root

Burnham, often accused by later critics of being merely the politician of the firm, Root being the real architect, 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 & Root became the establishment firm for Chicago’s business elite, designing their offices in the Loop and their houses in the suburbs.

Burnham and Root

Burnham and his partner, Root, found many clients willing to finance the city’s new methods because everyone seemed to be saving fortunes in using them. As the gifted engineer, Root could build nearly anything put before him, but it was Burnham alone who acted as the sales force. As an architectural firm needs to get the commission before any innovation can occur, Burnham was critical as few architects had the innate ability to convince, cajole, or coerce hardened businessmen because he was one of them himself. Burnham & Root started big and, even after Root’s premature death in 1891, wound up as the biggest architectural firm in the world.

Chicago School of Architecture

Boston brothers Peter and Shepherd Brooks were cost driven clients who disdained expensive ornament. In 1882, Burnham & Root provided them a stripped-down ten-story office building, “The Montauk,” that set the standard for simple structurally expressive office constructions. But it still had load-bearing walls. What started the ball rolling for structural innovation was the fact that pile-driving down to the bedrock through Chicago’s underground morass would be too expensive.

Montauk Building 1882
Montauk plan

At the start of the design process in February of 1882, Root devised a reinforced concrete “raft” that floated on top of the clay and rubble subsoil. 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.

Iron and steel bridge-building techniques were used instead to quickly set massive cages on end becoming buildings that were taller than anywhere else on earth. Without the need for heavy load-bearing walls, windows could march end-to-end, gathering more light than thought possible in a tall building. Safe elevators, telephones, and electric lights completed the transformation into a new way to build and, this being America, a new way to make money.

The Rookery

In 1886, skeleton supports of cast iron columns held up not only the interior light well but two exterior walls of the alley elevations of Burnham & Root’s more ornamental Rookery for the Brooks brothers. However, the two street elevations were built using the traditional load-bearing walls.

Rookery Building 1888
Rookery light court

The Monadnock

Though not as ornamental as the Rookery and known today as the tallest (sixteen stories) load-bearing high rise, its exterior simplicity was the result of the thrifty Brooks’ spare program. The 1889 version still seen has a vaguely Egyptian silhouette whose kernel may have been an earlier and more ornamental 1885 design. But to brace the cliff of masonry from the wind, Root placed visible steel trusses between interior walls.

Monadnock Building 1889
Monadnock elevation 1885

It is just a hint of its interior framing as it’s a veritable “cage” (and that is what the system is called) of steel I beams within those load-bearing walls. Laid by the Fuller Construction Company of brown Anderson Pressed Brick, there is only a minute layer of mortar giving the structure a taut fabric look.

The South half was constructed by Holabird and Roche using the metal skeletal cage technique and hasn’t achieved the legendary status of the Northern Burnham & Root portion.

The White City

When Chicago decided it wanted to host a World’s Fair for 1892, there was no better person to put it all together than Burnham. But after Root’s death from pneumonia in 1891, Burnham alone planned the enormous World’s Columbian Exposition on Chicago’s Southside lakefront. The largest World’s Fair to that date, it celebrated the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the new world. And Burnham imported as many of the East Coast’s architectural stars as he could, giving them the biggest and most prominent buildings at the center of the fair. His “Chicago School” contemporaries were left with the designs of lesser pavilions, leading to resentments that have yet to recede.

Columbian Exposition Chicago Day
Statue of the Republic

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.

Burnham directed both the Eastern and local architects in the construction of a whitewashed “Classical” stage set of Corinthian columns and domed Pantheons so vast that it would have dwarfed the center of ancient Rome. Four times the size of the 1889 fair in Paris, the delayed “World’s Columbian Exposition” of 1893 instituted an imperial grandeur that contrasted with the loud, soot blackened Loop, earning it the nickname “The White City.”

The fair’s sculptural centerpiece in the basin of the Court of Honor depicted superheroically scaled “marble” oarsmen driving the barge of Columbus toward a towering, golden Statue of the Republic. Working with the landscape designer of New York’s Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, Burnham had turned the marshy shoreline on the far South Side into a magnificent stage set.


It also destroyed the Chicago School of Architecture. From then on, every new bank, library, and train station resembled Roman temples and basilicas in the time of Augustus. And Burnham, ever the businessman, got the commissions to build them. Louis Sullivan, the artistic soul of the modern movement, as well as Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor, was quoted as saying, “The damage wrought by the World’s Fair will last for half a century from its date, if not longer.”

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 and 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.

The planning of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair using broad plazas and lagoons to link imposing white pavilions was one of the lasting memories of visiting architects and civic officials. So the “City Beautiful Movement” began in America as a collective re-thinking of grand visuals for a politically expedient social motivator.

Frank Lloyd Wright

In the mid Eighteen Nineties, Burnham offered Frank Lloyd Wright all expenses for him and his young family to live in Paris for his study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts followed by a year in Rome. The catch would be that Wright would then return to work for Burnham.

Wright politely declined the offer from “Uncle Dan.”

Reliance Building

One of the best of the “Chicago School” buildings, and also one of the Burnham firm’s last before they were clad in Greco-Roman forms, was the Reliance Building at State and Washington. Because its lower floors seem to be from another building, the historical answer known to scholars is that it was constructed in two separate eras: Burnham & Root in 1890 and, after the death of Root in 1891, Burnham with Charles Atwood in 1894.

Reliance Building 1894

Atwood built a cream white and glass tower over Root’s brown stone and iron storefront. Though it displayed French Renaissance designs on the off-white terra cotta panels, the sheer modernity of the predominantly glass tower was influential to the Post World War II builders.

Atwood himself died in 1896 and Burnham later confirmed he had been an opium addict. But the greatest design of his career remains at the Loop’s State and Washington corner as a highly polished question mark: Did a drug-induced haze or his pavilions for the wildly popular “White City” inspire him?

D.H. Burnham and Company

When Burnham’s best friend, Root, died, and the World’s Fair architecture of Classical design made future clients yearn for the same look for their new banks, railroad stations, and office buildings, Chicago’s Commercial Style was nearly over. And the fact that he had more in common with those businessmen, the technical innovation of the Chicago School was soon masked by a coating of columns and Beaux-Arts designs.

But the structural solution of skeletal construction supported his new design partner, Peirce Anderson’s Classical forms and Burnham and Company was perfectly positioned to provide both. Though Burnham may have merely meant to cultivate lucrative clients, his stylistic choice anticipated the 20th Century’s “Post-Modernist” approach to the feeling of architecture as opposed to its logic.

McMillan Commission

Washington, D.C., like ancient Rome, was to be a visual extension of power. Called the “Plan of 1901,” or the “Washington Plan of 1902” or the “Burnham Plan,” the McMillan Commission was set up by the Senate to carry out Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan and effectively remove the decision-making from the Army Corp of Engineers to place it instead with the President and Congress. Also, the recent assassination of President McKinley and the ascendency of the Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt, to the Presidency had completely changed the politics.

1901 McMillan Plan
1907 Union Station

Advisors to the Commission were both Daniel Burnham and the son of Frederick Law Olmsted. Burnham persuaded the Pennsylvania Railroad to remove their tracks and station from the Mall and the Commission planned its knife-edged border of grand civic buildings and extend the Mall itself over reclaimed land westward to the Potomac River.

Burnham’s extensive greensward at the Capitol Building provided a suitable front yard to his new Classically styled Union Station to consolidate railroads including the Pennsylvania. Eventually, 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.

Plan of Chicago

Burnham went on to outline elaborate plans for Manila, San Francisco, and Cleveland but it was the also unrealized 1909 Plan of Chicago that was ingrained in the city’s philosophy.

1909 Plan of Chicago Civic Center Square

Partnering with Edward Bennett and Jules Guerin in producing a ravishing exhibition opening at the Art Institute on July 4, 1909, the direction of the new Chicago was to be a magnificent “Paris-on-the-Prairie.” The huge renderings and maps alone caught the public’s attention so that to this day, Chicago finally built itself into one of the grandest modern cities in the world.

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. In a sense, Burnham became the Henry Ford of the architectural world.


While in Europe for a vacation with his wife on June 1st of 1912, Burnham died of blood poisoning and the newspapers in America noted the passing of the creator of the world’s fair and City Beautiful movement. Left unwritten was that he was the most famous architect in the world.

Frank Lloyd Wright, in his 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.”

Though Burnham didn’t foresee Lake Shore Drive as a superhighway or Chicago’s hundred story towers, the ending of his “Make no little plans…” credo leaves little doubt that he saw it even then as a city for the ages: “Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us.”