Daniel Hudson Burnham’s directive to “make no small plans” remains a fitting summary for a man whose life and work was defined by the expansion, growth, and prosperity of well-to-do Americans in the decades that surround the turn of the 20th century. Not only did Burnham house businessmen and statesmen who drove the American commercial and political engine to its unmatched expansion, but he also defined and gave architectural expression to the building types and urban forms they brought to life.
Burnham was born into a family of modest means in rural New York. In 1855 his family moved to Chicago, drawn by the thriving new city’s opportunities. At first, seeking his fortune elsewhere, Burnham made unsuccessful attempts to get an Ivy League education, mine for silver in the West, and run for public office in the late 1860s. Upon returning to Chicago, Burnham fell into architecture, rather than having been led by a muse to express himself in built form. From the start, Burnham saw architecture as a business opportunity. After working briefly for a series of architectural offices that included Loring and Jenney in 1872, Burnham settled in with Carter Drake and Wight, where he met John Wellborn Root. In the following year, the two men channeled their complementary interests and talents into opening their own firm. Root was more aesthetically inclined and detail oriented, and became the firm’s primary designer, whereas Burnham’s organizational and social skills were directed toward business matters and planning efforts.
Their first projects were residences for wealthy Chicagoans, and were characterized by an affinity for period styles and historical eclecticism. They included a house in 1874 for stockyard mogul John B.Sherman that was built on fashionable Prairie Avenue. This project was essential to Burnham’s later development and professional life, and offeredhim access to the board-rooms of high-powered patrons; it became his social entrée to dinner parties following his marriage to Sherman’s daughter. From this point, Burnham and Root were catapulted into the elite social and business circles in Chicago.
His patrons enhanced Burnham’s natural inclination toward the entrepreneurial. Declaring that he was “not going to stay satisfied with houses,” Burnham envisioned assembling a “big business to handle big things, deal with big businessman, and to build up a big organization, for you can’t handle big things unless you have an organization” (Hines, 1974). His growing firm focused on office-building projects, for which Burnham laid out the plans, and they soon became the standard for this new building type; Root was responsible for the detailed designs. Burnham’s functional, utilitarian designs were based largely on H, U, or square plans accommodating interior light wells, while exposing a maximum amount of the exterior walls to light and air. Their 11-story Rookery Building (1887) is a square plan with one double-loaded corridor wrapping a central light court; all of its offices opened onto either this court or the exterior. The efficient plan was matched by an innovative, iron-curtain, wall structure not evident under the building’s brick and terracotta shell, articulated into five heavy layers, with a profusion of neo-Romanesque ornament. In contrast, the recently restored internal court—a delicate web of cast- and wrought-iron skylights and cantilevered stairways—is a dazzling display of late-19th-century building technology.
Whereas the Rookery showed indebtedness to 19th-century historicism, another office building constructed in the following decade pointed toward the future. The Reliance Building (1894) eschewed overt historical detail in favor of a more utilitarian, functional, structure-expressing language for which the Chicago School is well known. The 14-story steel frame was wrapped in fireproof terra-cotta and expressed clearly on the building facade through the slender, ribbonlike spandrels that wrap each story at floor level, leaving the greatest proportion of the facade open to glazing. Delicate foliate patterns in the terra-cotta and the building’s original projecting cornice hearken to past traditions. However, the startling quantity of glass, the sparkling whiteness of the glazed spandrels with their pronounced horizontality, and the removal of vertical structural members from the facade foretold a new spirit in office-building design: a functional, honest expression of the structure that would reach fulfillment in the next century. Burnham’s office buildings contributed to the development of the new building type, improving function and comfort. Whatever the outward expression of these buildings, their decorous designs made them impressive members of the urban landscape, suggestive of the growing wealth and prestige of their patrons, and the importance of the activities within their walls.
With Root’s unexpected death in 1891, Burnham was forced to form other partnerships; the firm’s name changed to D.H. Burnham and Co. and later to Graham Burnham and Company. Each firm built on the original Burnham and Root model, with Burnham overseeing every part of an increasingly hierarchical and specialized structure. Adopted from the world of business, this approach led architectural practice away from the atelierbased system, and toward the now common architectural practice. By 1910 Burnham’s was the largest architectural firm in the world, with 180 employees, branch offices in New York and San Francisco, and buildings rising from Houston to London. Burnham was long an advocate for professionalism in architecture, and he lobbied for professional rights and served the American Institute of Architects (AIA) as president in the 1890s.
His growing fame and prominence in social and professional circles made Burnham an appropriate choice to direct the architectural planning of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 held in Chicago. It was not only a fair; the exposition was a city in miniature and inaugurated Burnham’s practice as an urban planner. As director, Burnham took control of virtually every aspect including the hiring of workers, laborers, artists, and architects, and overseeing their work and the construction of all buildings. Burnham led the team of prominent architects in arranging a series of buildings around a centralized Court of Honor. To encourage harmony among the designs in response to the classical taste shared by many of the École-trained architects, the committee agreed to a uniform cornice height and a classical vocabulary for their individual buildings, which were to be grouped around the central Court of Honor. References to imperial and Renaissance Rome, Versailles, and post-Haussmann Paris were manifest in the fair’s long axial boulevards, water elements, and monumental classical architecture. Although a variety of building styles were employed in the peripheral buildings, it was the images of the Court of Honor that made the fair famous, and influenced city planning afterward.
Aesthetics were not all that concerned Burnham in the planning of the Columbian Exposition. Although it was to be temporary, the grounds were needed to operate like a small-scale city: electrical, steam, gas, water supply, sewage, and transportation all had to be accommodated, which further prepared Burnham for the practical considerations of city planning. However, in this case, other urban challenges were conspicuously absent. For example, there were no slums, and no housing at all was designed or was to be included. Many questioned the appropriateness of this model for real, working cities, and it was deemed irrelevant by later historians and critics. However, the fair was enormously successful with the thousands of visitors who flocked to it, as well as the city officials across the country that were moved to inject some of the model into their own municipalities.
Following the success of the fair, Burnham’s well-known administrative and planning skills were in great demand at the turn of the century. His most prominent commission was the Washington Plan of 1902. It was prompted by the capital city’s centennial, renewed hope and prosperity following the depression of the mid-1890s, and the conclusion of the Spanish-American war. The plan began as a revival of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s 1793 scheme, from which departures had been made for timeand cost-saving reasons. The design team (Burnham and other alumni of the Columbian Exposition) studied such precedents as Paris, Rome, and Versailles, focusing their attention on the Mall area. The main axes of the original plan had been abandoned with the placement of the Washington Monument. Burnham’s reconfigured Mall disguised this imperfection by redrawing the axes to meet at the Monument. Burnham cleansed the Mall of its previous functions as pasture, lumberyard, and railroad center, making it a wide swath of elm-lined green space, bordered by cultural institutions. Office blocks and parks were planned for prime locations nearby. The next four administrations drew from Burnham’s plan the groundwork for future development in Washington, and architects followed his precepts for layout and style. Significant additions to Washington that remained in keeping with the plan include Henry Bacon’s Lincoln Memorial (1912), John Russell Pope’s National Gallery of Art, and Burnham’s Union Station (1907). Burnham’s classicized plan for the capital—successor to and embodiment of the fulfillment of the westward march—suited the nation’s cultural and political vision.
Burnham’s plans for Cleveland (1903) and San Francisco (1905) proved, on smaller scale, the national influence of his city-planning ideals. His vision affected foreign countries as well; in 1904 Burnham designed the colonial Philippine cities of Manila and Baguio. These designs also paid homage to Beaux-Arts planning, with the city grid cut by diagonal boulevards and dotted with a citywide park system. However, within this imported framework, Burnham preserved local Spanish-Philippine building traditions. As such, his urban plans encourage comparison with other early-20th-century imperial capital planning, such as Sir Edwin Lutyens’s design for the Viceroy’s House (1913) in New Delhi, where Mogul and Buddhist features meld into an otherwise abstractly classical design.
No urban scheme of Burnham’s was as sweeping as his Chicago Plan of 1909. Here, he accepted the challenge that included not only a city center or fairgrounds, but a complete city. Taking only the most general clues from the existing street grid and lakeshore, Burnham reorganized the city into a 20-mile-long recreational, lakefront park, backed by virtually endless commercial districts, with consistent cornice heights punctuated by interior parks. The existing grid of streets was improved functionally and aesthetically, railroad terminals were regrouped for better communication and reduced industrial sprawl, and the Chicago River was straightened for more effective water and riverside transportation. A great domed civic center dominated the skyline; from it, radial boulevards reached into the suburbs miles away.
While the Chicago Plan’s aesthetics are often noted—particularly the seeming incongruence of Burnham’s Beaux-Arts imposition on the existing industrial, commercial nature of the jagged city, a consistency remains with his earlier vision, to ennoble the businessman and his commercial empire. Burnham’s Chicago was a commercial enterprise, aggrandized in a way that lent recognition to commercial activity as Chicago’s primary cultural export. As early as the mid-1890s, Burnham had revealed the genesis of the plan as the city’s moneymaking potential: an improved physical structure would increase productivity and wealth, and a fine-looking city would encourage the spending of travel dollars at home rather than abroad. Burnham’s optimistic and, ultimately unrealistic vision, populated it with wealthy and successful business leaders with little room for anyone else. Even so, the grandeur of Burnham’s vision directed much of Chicago’s development in coming years: his double-decker boulevard was built as Wacker Drive, Michigan Avenue, was broadened in the 1920s, and various lakefront amenities were constructed in a landfill along the shore, now known as Grant Park.
Burnham’s plans served the society that he knew best: the industrialists and politicians who endeavored to improve society through cultural gifts. With honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Northwestern; membership in exclusive social and business clubs; extensive foreign travel; and a supporter of the arts, Burnham was among the elite of the architectural profession, who could afford to live as their clients did. Just as businessmen presented the city with museums and libraries, Burnham gave the gift of his talents to the people. Most of the city plans he completed were presented free of charge. Although some might judge this beneficence as misguided, Burnham was convinced of architecture’s role in the improvement of society. In Century Magazine, he described the plan of Washington as complementary to the reformation called for among progressive politicians. He believed that aesthetic unity among buildings encouraged social harmony. He felt the ennobling forms of classical architecture were a language meant to uplift the populace, and express the strength and permanency of the political and social order. In his report for the Cleveland Plan, he wrote that the “jumble of buildings” present in most cities disturbed social peace. Architectural uniformity and harmony, as seen in ancient cities of the world, would encourage social harmony in modern America.
Attitudes about Burnham changed radically after his death in 1912. While once he was regarded as a powerful visionary, by the 1920s he was decried as a megalomaniac. During the 1930s, the threat of Fascism and its orderly, uniform architecture brought a chill to reviews of his grand designs. The aesthetic of classicism fell out of favor as modernism swept through the architectural academies and journals, and the few who discussed Burnham did so with derision, grieving his renunciation of the honest architecture of the Chicago School to follow classical, elitist, historicist, and irrelevant flights of fancy. Recent years have been kinder to Burnham, bringing an increased appreciation for the role of ornament in architecture after mid-century. It has lead to a reevaluation of Burnham’s career. During the 1970s, the first serious biography of Burnham was written, as were a flurry of dissertations on his work and planning. His many contributions to architecture are appreciated today. Burnham’s role in the development of the skyscraper, the planning of the modern office building, and cityplanning concepts that were employed throughout the United States affects nearly every architectural office in operation today.
Although somewhat dated, the best and most complete work on Burnham to date is Thomas S.Hines’s Burnham of Chicago. Written by a close friend, Charles Moore’s earlier account of Burnham’s life and work benefits from intimacy of detail but suffers from a lack of scholarly discrimination. Jordy and Wiseman cover both Burnham’s 19th- and 20thcentury work.
Elliott, Thomas R., “Daniel Burnham: A Consistent Classicist,” Classical America, 4 (1977)
Field, Cynthia R., “The City Planning of Daniel Hudson Burnham” (Ph.D. diss.) Columbia University, 1974
Hines, Thomas S., Burnham of Chicago: Architect and Planner, New York: Oxford University Press, 1974
Jordy, William H., Progressive and Academic Ideals at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972
Moore, Charles, Daniel H.Burnham: Architect, Planner o f Cities, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1921
Wiseman, Carter, Shaping a Nation: Twentieth-Centu ry Amer ican Architecture and Its Makers, New York: Norton, 1998
Burnham’s papers are located in the Burnham and Ryerson Library, The Art Institute of Chicago. The World ’s Columbian Exposition, the Book o f the Builders, Being the Chronicle of the Origin and Plan of the World’s Fair (with Francis Millet), 1894
“How to Set up an Architectural Office Composed of Specialists,” Inland Architect and News Report, 35 (June 1900)
The Improvement of the Park System of the Dist rict of Colu mbia (with Charles Moore), 1902
“White City and Capital City,” Century Magazine, 63 (February 1902)
Group Plan o f the Public Buildings of Cleveland (with John M. Carrère and Arnold Brunner), 1903
Report on a Plan for San Francisco (with Edward F.O’Day), 1905
The Plan of Chicago (with Edward Benett and Charles Moore), 1909