Wednesday, May 8, 2019

An In-depth Biography of Architect Daniel Hudson Burnham.

Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912)
Daniel Hudson Burnham was born in Henderson, New York, and raised in the teachings of the Swedenborgian called The New Church, which ingrained in him the strong belief that man should strive to be of service to others. At the age of eight, Burnham moved to Chicago, Illinois, and his father established a wholesale drug business, which became a success.

Burnham was not a good student, but he was good at drawing. He went east at the age of 18 to be taught by private tutors in order to pass the admissions examinations for Harvard and Yale, failing both apparently because of a bad case of test anxiety. In 1867, when he was 21, he returned to Chicago and took an apprenticeship as a draftsman under William LeBaron Jenney of the architectural firm Loring & Jenney.

Architecture seemed to be the calling he was looking for, and he told his parents that he wanted to become "the greatest architect in the city or country."

Nevertheless, the young Burnham still had a streak of wanderlust in him, and in 1869 he left his apprenticeship to go to Nevada with friends to try mining gold, at which he failed. He then ran for the Nevada state legislature and failed to be elected. Broke, he returned again to Chicago and took a position with the architect L.G. Laurean. When the Great Chicago Fire hit the city in October 1871, it seemed as if there would be endless work for architects, but Burnham chose to strike out again, becoming first a salesman of plate glass windows, then a druggist. He failed at first and quit the second. He later remarked on "a family tendency to get tired of doing the same thing for very long."

Burnham married Margaret Sherman, the daughter of his first major client, John B. Sherman, on January 20, 1876. They first met on the construction site of her father’s house. Her father had a house built for the couple to live in. During their courtship, there was a scandal in which Burnham's older brother was accused of having forged checks. Burnham immediately went to John Sherman and offered to break the engagement as a matter of honor, but Sherman rejected the offer, saying, "There is a black sheep in every family." However, Sherman remained wary of his son-in-law, whom he thought drank too much.

Burnham and Margaret remained married for the rest of his life. They had five children, two daughters and three sons, including Daniel Burnham Jr., born in February 1886, who became an architect and urban planner like his father. He worked in his father's firm until 1917 and served as the Director of Public Works for the 1933-34 Chicago World's Fair, known as the "Century of Progress."

The Burnham family lived in Chicago until 1886, when he purchased a 16-room farmhouse and estate on Lake Michigan in the suburb of Evanston, Illinois. Burnham had become wary of Chicago, which he felt was becoming dirtier and more dangerous as its population increased. 
Daniel H. Burnham Residence, Forest Ave. and Burnham Place, Evanston, Illinois. (1888)
Burnham explained to his mother, whom he did not tell of the move in advance, "I did it because I can no longer bear to have my children on the streets of Chicago..." When Burnham moved into "the shanty" in Jackson Park to better supervise the construction of the fair, his wife, Margaret, and their children remained in Evanston.

Professional Career
At age 26, Burnham moved on to the Chicago offices of Carter, Drake, and Wight, where he met future business partner John Wellborn Root, who was 21, four years younger than Burnham.
Daniel H. Burnham and John W. Root. (circa 1890)
The two became friends and then opened an architectural office together in 1873. Unlike his previous ventures, Burnham stuck to this one. Burnham and Root (1873-1891) went on to become a very successful firm.

Their first major commission came from John B. Sherman, the superintendent of the massive Union Stock Yards in Chicago, which provided the livelihood – directly or indirectly – for one-fifth of the city's population. Sherman hired Burnham and Root to build him a mansion on Prairie Avenue and Twenty-first Street among the mansions of Chicago's other merchant barons.
John B. Sherman House, 2100 South Prairie Avenue, Chicago. (1874)
Root made the initial design. Burnham refined it and supervised the construction. It was on the construction site that he met Sherman's daughter, Margaret, whom Burnham would marry in 1876 after a short courtship. Sherman would commission other projects from Burnham and Root, including the Stone Gate, an entry portal to the stockyards, which became a Chicago landmark.
Union Stock Yards Stone Entrance, Chicago, Illinois.
In 1881, the firm was commissioned to build the Montauk Building, which would be the tallest building in Chicago at that time. To solve the problem of the city's water-saturated sandy soil and bedrock 125 feet below the surface, Root came up with a plan to dig down to a “hardpan” layer of clay on which was laid a 2-foot thick pad of concrete overlaid with steel rails placed at right-angles to form a lattice “grill,” which was then filled with Portland cement. This "floating foundation" was, in effect, artificially created bedrock on which the building could be constructed. The completed building was so tall in comparison to existing buildings that it defied easy description, and the name "skyscraper" was coined to describe it. Thomas Talmadge, an architect and architectural critic said of the building, "What Chartres was to the Gothic cathedral, the Montauk Block was to the high commercial building."
The Montauk Building, Chicago. (c.1886)
Burnham and Root went on to build more of the first American skyscrapers, such as the Masonic Temple Building in Chicago. Measuring 21 stories and 302 feet, the temple held claims as the tallest building of its time but was torn down in 1939.
Masonic Temple Building, Chicago, Illinois.
The talents of the two partners were complementary. Both men were artists and gifted architects, but Root had a knack for conceiving elegant designs and was able to see almost at once the totality of the necessary structure. Burnham, on the other hand, excelled at bringing in clients and supervising the building of Root's designs. They each appreciated the value of the other to the firm.

Burnham also took steps to ensure that their employees were happy: he installed a gym in the office, gave fencing lessons, and let employees play handball at lunchtime. Root, a pianist, and organist gave piano recitals in the office on a rented piano. Paul Starrett, who joined the office in 1888, said:
"The office was full of a rush of work, but the spirit of the place was delightfully free and easy and human in comparison to other offices I had worked in."
Although the firm was extremely successful, there were several notable setbacks. One of their designs, the Grannis Block, 21-29 N. Dearborn Street, in which their office was located, burned down on February 19, 1885. The building was seven stories high, with one basement on spread foundations. It had a red brick and red terra cotta front, with wood floor construction. The cast-iron columns were fireproofed with 21 inches of terra cotta. H.M. Kinsley restaurant was in the basement. It was totally destroyed, causing a loss of $185,000. The occupants lost, in furniture and effects, $50,000, making a total loss of $235,000. Upon this, there is an insurance of about $200,000.
Illustration of the Portland and Grannis buildings, 1886.
An arrow pointing to the Grannis building.
Burnham was the first person to discover the fire, and his theory of the origin is undoubtedly the correct one. The stairway that winds around the elevator hatchway led directly to the door of his private office, which was located in the southeast corner of the building. The elevator hatchway was about ten feet distant from his office, and projecting into the room was a sealed shaft running from the basement to the attic. The shaft was oblong in shape with ventilators on each floor, walled on one side with brick and on the other with wood and plaster. Access to it was to be had only in the basement and the attic. In this shaft were the elevator counter-weights and cables. The cables were thick and stout, which were well oiled, as the elevator was kept in constant use during the day. Mr. Burnham was sitting in his office at half-past 5 o’clock, occupied with a client. He said:
"I thought I detected the odor of smoke and called to the engineer to investigate. I walked into our main rooms to investigate, but no smoke could be found there. I arrived at the conclusion that the flames were under the floor of my private office; and after ordering everything thrown into the vaults, I stepped out to talk to the elevator-boy. It was then that positive evidence of fire was revealed. A half-dozen sparks flew out of the shaft-ventilator and were drawn down into the elevator hatchway. It was then that the automatic fire-alarm in the attic sounded and brought the fire patrol to the scene."
It was necessary to move to the top floor of The Rookery, another of their designs.
The Rookery Building in Chicago. (1886, photo: 1891)
Then, in 1888, a Kansas City, Missouri hotel they had designed collapsed during construction, killing one man and injuring several others. At the coroner's inquest, the building's design came in for criticism. The negative publicity shook and depressed Burnham. Then in a further setback, Burnham and Root also failed to win the commission for the design of the giant Auditorium Building, which went instead to their rivals, Adler & Sullivan.

On January 15, 1891, while the firm was deep in meetings for the design of the World's Columbian Exposition, Root died after a three-day course of pneumonia. As Root had only been 41 years old, his death stunned both Burnham and Chicago society. After Root's death, the firm of Burnham and Root, which had had tremendous success producing modern buildings as part of the Chicago School of architecture, was renamed D.H. Burnham & Company (1891-1912).

The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago
Burnham and Root had accepted the responsibility to oversee the design and construction of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago’s then-desolate Jackson Park on the south lakefront. The largest world's fair to that date (1893), it celebrated the 400-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus's famous voyage. After Root's sudden and unexpected death, a team of distinguished American architects and landscape architects, including Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Richard M. Hunt, George B. Post, Henry Van Brunt, and Louis Sullivan, radically changed Root's modern and colorful style to a Classical Revival style. 
D.H. Burnham & Co. Drawing of the World's Columbian Exposition, Palace of Fine Arts (Museum of Science and Industry), Jackson Park, Chicago, Illinois. (built 1891-1893)
To ensure the project’s success, Burnham moved his personal residence into a wooden headquarters, called "the shanty," on the burgeoning fairgrounds to improve his ability to oversee construction. The construction of the fair-faced huge financial and logistical hurdles, including the Panic of 1893, and an extremely tight timeframe, to open on time.
1893 World's Columbia Exposition, Chicago, Illinois.
Considered the first example of a comprehensive planning document in the nation, the fairground featured grand boulevards, classical building facades, and lush gardens. Often called the "White City," it popularized neoclassical architecture in a monumental yet rational Beaux-Arts style. As a result of the fair’s popularity, architects across the U.S. were said to be inundated with requests by clients to incorporate similar elements into their designs.

The control of the fair's design and construction was a matter of dispute between various entities, particularly the National Commission, which was headed by George R. Davis, who served as Director-General of the fair, the Exposition Company, which consisted of the city's leading merchants, led by Lyman Gage, which had raised the money need to build the fair, and Burnham as Director of Works. In addition, the large number of committees made it difficult for construction to move forward at the pace needed to meet the opening day deadline. After a major accident that destroyed one of the fair's premier buildings, Burnham moved to take tighter control of construction, distributing a memo to all of the fair's department heads which read, "I have assumed personal control of the active work within the grounds of the World's Columbian Exposition... Henceforward, and until further notice, you will report to and receive orders from me exclusively."

After the fair opened, Olmsted, who designed the fairgrounds, said of Burnham that: 
"Too high an estimate cannot be placed on the industry, skill and tact with which this result was secured by the master of us all."
Burnham himself rejected the suggestion that Root had been largely responsible for the fair's design, writing afterward:
What was done up to the time of his death was the faintest suggestion of a plan... The impression concerning his part has been gradually built up by a few people, close friends of his and mostly women, who naturally after the Fair proved beautiful desired to more broadly identify his memory with it.
Post-Fair Architecture
Nevertheless, Burnham’s reputation was considerably enhanced by the success and beauty of the fair. Harvard and Yale Universities presented honorary master's degrees, ameliorating Burnham’s failure to pass their entrance exams in his youth. While the common perception when Root was alive was that he was the architectural artist and Burnham ran the business side of the firm, Root's death, while devastating to Burnham personally, allowed him to develop as an architect in a way that might not have happened if Root had remained alive.

In 1901, Burnham designed the Flatiron Building in New York City, a trailblazing structure that utilized an internal steel skeleton to provide structural integrity; the exterior masonry walls were not load-bearing. This allowed the building to rise to 22 stories. The design was that of a vertical Renaissance palazzo with Beaux-Arts styling, divided like a classical column into the base, shaft, and capital.

Other Burnham post-fair designs included the Land Title Building (1897) in Philadelphia, the first major building in that city not designed by local architects, and known as "the finest example of early skyscraper design" there, John Wanamaker's Department Store (1902-11) in Philadelphia, now Macy's, which is built around a central court, Wanamaker's Annex (1904, addition: 1907-10), in New York City, a 19 story full-block building which contains as much floor space as the Empire State Building, the neo-classical Gimbels Department Store (1908-12) also in New York, now the Manhattan Mall, with a completely new facade, the stunningly Art Deco Mount Wilson Observatory in the hills above Pasadena, California, and Filene's Department Store (1912) in Boston, Burnham's last major building.
Burnham's last building project was Filene's Department Store
in Boston, completed in September of 1912.
The Burnham Plan: Plan of Chicago
Initiated in 1906 and published in 1909, Burnham and his co-author Edward H. Bennett prepared a Plan of Chicago (pdf), which laid out plans for the future of the city. It was the first comprehensive plan for the controlled growth of an American city and an outgrowth of the City Beautiful movement. The plan included ambitious proposals for the lakefront and river. It also asserted that every citizen should be within walking distance of a park. Sponsored by the Commercial Club of Chicago, Burnham donated his services in hopes of furthering his own cause.
Title page for Burnham's Plan of Chicago. Click to download in pdf format.
Building off plans and conceptual designs from the World’s Fair for the south lakefront, Burnham envisioned Chicago as a "Paris on the Prairie." French-inspired public works constructions, fountains, and boulevards radiating from a central, domed municipal palace became Chicago's new backdrop. Though only parts of the plan were actually implemented, it set the standard for urban design, anticipating the future need to control urban growth and continuing to influence the development of Chicago long after Burnham's death.

Burnham's city planning projects did not stop at Chicago, though. Burnham had previously contributed to plans for cities such as Cleveland (the 1903 Group Plan), San Francisco (1905), and Manila (1905), and Baguio in the Philippines, details of which appear in the 1909 Plan of Chicago publication. His plans for the redesign of San Francisco were delivered to the Board of Supervisors in September 1905, but in haste to rebuild the city after the 1906 earthquake and fires, Burnham’s plans were ultimately ignored.

In his career after the fair, Burnham became one of the country's most prominent advocates for the Beaux-Arts movement, as well as the revival of Neo-classical architecture, which the fair set off. Much of Burnham's work was based on the classical style of Greece and Rome. In his 1924 autobiography, Louis Sullivan, one of the leading architects of the Chicago School, but one who had a difficult relationship with Burnham over an extended period of time, criticized Burnham for what Sullivan viewed as his lack of original expression and dependence on classicism. Sullivan went on to claim that "the damage wrought by the World's Fair will last for half a century from its date, if not longer" – a sentiment edged with bitterness, as corporate America of the early 20th century had demonstrated a strong preference for Burnham's architectural style over Sullivan's.

Burnham is famously quoted as saying, "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will not themselves be realized." This slogan has been taken to capture the essence of Burnham's spirit.

A man of influence, Burnham was considered the pre-eminent architect in America at the start of the 20th century. He held many positions during his lifetime, including the presidency of the American Institute of Architects. Other notable architects began their careers under his aegis, such as Joseph W. McCarthy. Several of his descendants have worked as influential architects and planners in the United States, including his son, Daniel Burnham Jr., and grandchildren Burnham Kelly and Margaret Burnham Geddes.
Reliance Building in Chicago. (1890-95, photo: 2010)
Of the 27 buildings designed by "Burnham and Root" for Chicago's Loop, only The Rookery and the Reliance Building, now the "Staypineapple Chicago," remain.

When Burnham was in his fifties, his health began to decline. He developed colitis and, in 1909, was diagnosed with diabetes, which affected his circulatory system and led to an infection in his foot which was to continue for the remainder of his life.
The Burnham Family: Daniel H. Burnham, Daniel Burnham Jr., John Burnham, Margaret "Peg" Burnham (daughter), Hubert Burnham, Ethel Burnham, and others. (c.1910)
On April 14, 1912, Burnham and his wife were aboard the S.S. Olympic of the White Star Line, traveling to Europe to tour Heidelberg, Germany. When he attempted to send a telegram to his friend Frank Millet, who was traveling the opposite direction, from Europe to the United States, on the S.S. Titanic, he learned that the ship had been having sunk in an accident and that Millet was not one of the survivors. Burnham died just 47 days later from colitis complicated by his diabetes and food poisoning from a meal eaten in Heidelberg.
Daniel Hudson Burnham Headstone in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery.
At the time of his death, D.H. Burnham & Co. was the world's largest architectural firm. D.H. Burnham & Company was passed down to a longtime trusted employee, who later changed the name to Graham, Burnham, and Company then renamed to Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, and Company, which continued in some form until 2006.

Even legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, although strongly critical of Burnham's Beaux-Arts European influences, still admired him as a man and eulogized him, saying:
"[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."
Daniel Burnham is interred at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.

Notable Burnham Chicago Commissions
Union Stock Yard Gate (1879)
Union Station (1881)
Montauk Building (1882-83)
Kent House (1883)
Rookery Building (1886)
Reliance Building (1890-95)
Rand McNally Building, the second one (1890, the first all-steel framed skyscraper)
Monadnock Building (northern half, 1891)
Marshall Field and Company Building (1891-92)
Masonic Temple (1892). 
Fisher Building (1896)
Orchestra Hall (1904)
Heyworth Building (1904)

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. Wonderful read. I started the "Plan of Chicago"also. Thank you for including the link.

  2. Fascinating and informative article. I have gone on architecture tours, but never learn as much as I have from your article.


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