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Burnham, Daniel Hudson - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Daniel Hudson Burnham, Social and Economic Impact

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Burnham and Root


Daniel Burnham was a chief architect of nineteenth-century America who helped rebuild Chicago after it burned down in the mid-nineteenth century. He was not a “modernist” but was a master of practical architecture and made early contributions to the development of the skyscraper. Even though his work was influenced by European ideas, his maxim “think big” and his innovations in the new field of urban and regional planning served the early needs of the U.S. industrial revolution.

Personal Life

Daniel Hudson Burnham was born on September 4, 1846, in Henderson, New York near New York City. He was the son of Edwin and Elizabeth (Weeks) Burnham. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was a middle-class businessman working as a wholesale merchant of medical supplies. In 1855, Burnham’s family moved to Chicago, Illinois. Burnham’s childhood seemed unremarkable and he was indifferent to the public school he attended in Chicago. But he excelled in one area: freehand drawing.

Burnham graduated from high school in 1866, after he had received some tutoring in Bridgewater, Massachusetts from a private tutor. As he grew into his teen years, his interest in architecture and his talent for drawing became increasingly evident to others.

When Burnham turned 22 years-old he applied to Harvard University and Yale, but he was not accepted by either of the colleges and he became confused about his future. He spent a year as a clerk in a retail store and then went to Nevada in 1868 for a year to prospect for gold. After returning from Nevada, he ran unsuccessfully for an Illinois state senate seat in 1870. He became dissatisfied with all these false starts in life, and his father, who believed in his talents as a draftsman of some kind, helped him to get an interview with one of Chicago’s leading architects, William Le Baron Jenney. Burnham took a job as an apprentice in Jenney’s architectural firm after interviewing with him.

At the age of 30, in 1876, Burnham married Margaret Sherman, the daughter of a wealthy stockyard executive. They had a long marriage and produced three sons and two daughters, all born within the first decade of their marriage. Two sons, Hubert, and Daniel Jr., eventually became architects themselves and joined their father’s firm.

Burnham remained active in his career until his death at age 66. He died while on a research study in Heidelberg, Germany, on June 1, 1912 and is buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.

Career Details

Burnham found his career rather accidentally, after trying and failing at a variety of kinds of work as a young man. His introduction to the architecture profession, through his job in William Le Baron Jenney’s office, turned him toward the career in which he would make his mark. Because of his enthusiasm for the profession and his good drafting skills, Burnham went on in 1872 to a position as draftsman at the firm of Carter, Drake, and Wight.

There, Burnham met John Wellborn Root, a fellow draftsman at the firm. Root and Burnham soon became friends and in 1873, when Burnham was only 27 years old, they created a partnership and established their own architectural firm. Root was creative and versatile while Burnham was practical and made sure the business stayed profitable. The men’s preferences in design were complimentary as well. While Root preferred the older Romanesque styles, Burnham favored the later neoclassical styles of architecture.

It was a good partnership and appeared at almost the perfect time. In 1871 a huge fire had devastated the city of Chicago. There were many buildings and structures to be re-built and renewed, and between 1873 and 1891, the new firm designed 165 private residences and 75 buildings of various other types.

Burnham designed buildings in what was considered the old style, influenced more by European tradition than newer tastes. This style was often cramped and busy, with exterior decorations that echoed ancient Greek and Roman constructions. But Burnham was responsible for some important structural innovations. In 1881, in response to the challenge of space restrictions in the crowded downtown area, he began to build taller buildings. His Montauk Building built in Chicago, (10 stories high) is considered the first real skyscraper. The Montauk Building had fireproofed iron beams and was the first to utilize floating-raft foundations to make it more stable. Yet, it was not quite a modern building. It had masonry walls with cast-iron columns—already almost obsolete—and looked like a European building.

The Montauk Building was a great success for Burnham and he followed it up with the 11 story Rookery building in 1886. The Rookery’s floor plan—a hollow rectangle—was copied in other commercial buildings in Chicago. The Rookery still used old-fashioned load-bearing masonry walls, but also employed lighter walls supported at ground level by cast-iron columns with wrought-iron spandrel beams.

Between 1889 and 1891, Burnham worked on the design for the Monadnock Building in Chicago. It was 16 stories high and became the tallest building in the world at the time to have exterior load bearing walls. In fact, in was only surpassed in total height by the Masonic Temple Building in Chicago, which had 22 stories.

In 1891, Root died unexpectedly and the business was left in Burnham’s hands. By this time, their firm had designed over 200 buildings in Chicago as well as buildings in some 50 other cities. Burnham hoped to continue the company’s successes and changed the name of the firm to Daniel H. Burnham.

In 1893, Burnham achieved a kind of triumph, the design and building of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The giant fair, which commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s sailing to America, would include buildings and landscaping in an integrated design. Root had originally been named consulting architect for the project with Burnham serving as chief of construction, but after Root’s death, Burnham continued to oversee the project. Working with other leading architects, including famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, Burnham oversaw some 20,000 workers and a construction budget of over $20 million.

The Exposition’s design was deeply classical, influenced by the French architectural school that dominated the Western world, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts of Paris. The Beaux-Arts school incorporated the principles of ensemble, strong axes and axial planning. This kind of architecture, not American in style, relied on the forms of Roman and Greek classicism. Burnham called the Exposition his plaster dream city, but critics called it the “White City” because of his overuse of stucco throughout the project. Though critics complained that Burnham’s creation was imperialistic and too academic, and failed to set a new, more “American” tone, the project made a profit and earned Burnham an international reputation.

In 1893, Burnham received honorary architectural degrees from both Harvard and Yale University, two schools that earlier had denied his entrance as a student. He was elected to be president of both the American Institute of Architects and the Armenian Institute of Architects. He was also given a membership in the exclusive Country Club of New York. In 1896, Burnham changed the name of his design firm yet again to simply D.H. Burnham and Company.

Burnham’s success with the Columbian Exposition set the stage for what some consider his most important work, his involvement with the City Beautiful movement, which responded to the problems of expanding urbanization by employing principles of organization and design. Burnham worked on plans for several cities based generally on Napoleon’s master design for the architecture of Paris. Burnham consulted on plans for new Civic Centers for San Francisco and Cleveland and created plans for Detroit and Washington, D.C. He continued work that he had begun in 1897 for Chicago’s lakefront, and, at one point, consulted with William Howard Taft, then Secretary of War, regarding a plan to rebuild and modernize Manila and Baguio in the Philippines.

Burnham’s 1901 Washington D.C. plan was perhaps his most extensive and lasting. In an attempt to reclaim Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for the city, Burnham reclaimed the Mall and introduced a plan for the construction of the buildings around the Capitol and the White House. He also introduced a series of interconnected parks reportedly inspired by Andre Le Notre’s Baroque design for King Louis XIV’s Versailles Palace in France. Burnham was also commissioned to design a new Union Station for the nation’s capitol in 1903. When it was finished in 1907, it had a central focus on a triple arched entrance which led to a mammoth barrel-arched waiting room.

Working alongside Edward H. Bennett in 1909, Burnham produced his most famous plan. Called the Plan of Chicago, it was a response to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and called for the large-scale and organized planning of the city. With orderly groupings of buildings, parks, and transportation arteries, Burnham hoped to save Chicago from, as he wrote later, “chaos incident to rapid growth.” The plan addressed four different areas of urban life: dwelling, work, transportation, and recreation. The plan called for a city and county park system, the construction of wide boulevards radiating outwards from a civic center, a ring system of boulevards throughout the city, bi-level drives alongside the Chicago River, and the preservation of the land along lake Michigan.

In response to the plan, the Chicago Plan Committee was created to implement this design. The creation of Humboldt, Garfield and Columbus Parks as well as the Forest Preserve District are all a result of Burnham’s vision.

Chronology: Daniel Hudson Burnham

1846: Born.

1872: Began his career as a draftsman.

1873: Cofounder of Burnham and Root.

1881: Designed The Montauk Building.

1886: Designed The Rookery.

1889: Designed Monadnock Building.

1893: Designed buildings for World’s Columbian Exposition.

1901: Designed new layout for Washington D.C.

1909: Created Plan of Chicago.

1912: Died.

By the time of Burnham’s death in 1912, he had designed or helped to design over 100 major projects throughout the world. But by this time, American architecture had turned in a new direction. The work of architects such as Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright brought Modernism to prominence. Through the 1920s and 1930s, this style dominated American architecture and influenced design for the new century.

Social and Economic Impact

Though Burnham’s work has been faulted as too European and too alien from America’s forms, he developed many of the major structural designs incorporated in later buildings. His steel-skeleton building frame, which employed a few major load-bearing supports within masonry walls, made it possible for taller and taller buildings to be made and eventually paved the way for the super skyscrapers that have become a familiar part of the urban landscape.

Burnham is also given great credit as one of the first architects in America to call for sweeping and comprehensive city planning, which aimed to make cities more livable by placing commercial areas, housing, and parks in sensible relationships. “Make no little plans,” he said, “for they have no magic to stir men’s blood Make big plans, aim high”

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