Overview: Daniel H. Burnham

The Rookery

According to Thomas S. Hines, author of the biography Burnham of Chicago: Architect and Planner, Daniel H. Burnham was born in 1846 in Henderson, New York. His family soon moved to Chicago so that his father could pursue a business opportunity. Burnham was a distracted student in school, unable to determine his calling. He dabbled in a few different fields before taking a job as draftsman, first in the firm of architect William Le Baron Jenney, and then, in 1872, with Carter, Drake & Wight. There, he met and befriended the head draftsman, John Root, and the two started their own architectural firm in July 1873.

As I wrote in my article for the Summer 2007 issue of the Federation News, "Root's artistic genius complemented Burnham's business, organizational and engineering sense. Their designs were a true collaboration, with Burnham working out the structural layout of their commissions, and Root designing the architectural detailing. Over their first ten years in business, the firm developed a reputation for designing residences and commercial structures of striking originality."

That collaboration was on display with the Rookery Building (left), completed in 1888. Root was responsible for the building's Romanesque Revival exterior, which exhibits historical references to Roman, Byzantine, and Moorish stylistic elements: round arches, rooftop turrets, and, massive rusticated stone walls. Burnham's engineering expertise led architect Thomas Tallmadge to write that the Rookery was "an architectural tour de force...the problem of arrangement of light courts, of corridors, of stairs, and the divisions of offices were here for the first time intelligently solved."

The light court was Burnham & Root's signature solution to bringing daylight and ventilation into the center of a building that occupied a nearly-square lot, not unusual for a standard Chicago quarter-block building. Incandescent lighting of the 19th century was efficient at low levels, but created too much heat to be the sole source of lighting in first-class office space. The design was known as the "hollow square" or "square donut." Each floor had a corridor with offices that faced the street or alley on the outside, or the central light court on the inside. Thus, daylight was available to all offices, and all had windows that could open for fresh air in the summer months. The light court was capped at the second floor by a glass-covered atrium lobby, creating a pleasant retail space on the lower floors.

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Monadnock Building

In 1884, the owners of the property along the west side of Dearborn Street between Jackson and Van Buren Streets discovered that Chicago's City Council was contemplating an ordinance that would restrict buildings to 13 stories in height. Burnham & Root were commissioned to quickly file a building plan for a sixteen-story structure with the Building Department. John Root's design reflected an austerity of detail prescient of future skyscrapers. Yet the building plan also was a product of its time, crafted before steel skeleton construction was perfected.

John Root died of influenza in 1891 at the age of 41, and later that year the building he designed seven years earlier was finally built on the southwest corner of Jackson and Dearborn Streets. Named the Monadnock Building, its soaring height and unornamented, gently tapered and curving facade pointed toward a thrilling architectural future. At 16 stories and 215 in height, it was the world's tallest building when completed, and even today is the tallest ever built with weight-bearing masonry walls.

Architect Louis Sullivan wrote of the Monadnock that it was "an amazing cliff of brickwork, rising sheer and stark, with a subtlety of line and surface, a direct singleness of purpose, that gave one the thrill of romance."

The Monadnock was more a product of Root's artistic vision than Burnham's engineering sense, and it underscored the loss to architecture that Root's untimely death represented. Daniel Burnham wrote at the time, "John's death has left a hole into which not one, but several strong men must be flung."

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Columbian Exposition

In 1891, Daniel Burnham took over planning for the 1893 Columbian Exposition World's Fair, for which Root was to have been the consulting architect. Burnham's concept, sketched out with Root in 1890, broke from previous fairs, where mammoth glass sheds merely covered the exhibits. Their concept called for a plan suggesting permanent buildings of a monumental scale--a dream city. With time a pressing concern, Burnham and the exposition architecture committee agreed to use classical motifs as the general esthetic of the fair grounds and structures. Classical architecture was a vernacular that all of the designers understood, so this choice was made to expedite the planning process.

According to Thomas Hines, "Visitors came from every part of the world, and from the Chicago area, at least, from every stratum of society. The total paid admissions of 21,480,141 brought in gate receipts of $10,336,065.75." The paid admission represented a figure equal to one-third of the total population of the U.S. in 1890.

Again from Hines: "The World's Fair did many things for Daniel Burnham. It enhanced his already eminent reputation as an architect, organizer, and promoter. It enlarged his circle of close friends and professional associates--many of whom would continue to work with him on other projects and would influence and be influenced by him the rest of his life."

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Reliance Building

After the fair ended in October 1893, the firm of Burnham & Root was renamed D. H. Burnham & Company. Ernest Graham became Burnham's junior partner, and the office was divided into separate departments of design, working plans, and superintendence. Thomas Hines states that the three departments were placed in the direct charge of Pierce Anderson, Edward Probst, and H.J. White respectively. "Burnham indeed borrowed heavily from the business and organizational principles of his capitalistic friends and clients." D. H. Burnham & Company became the first architectural firm to adopt a big-business corporate hierarchy. While this arrangement allowed them to complete a prodigious number of new structures, many suffered from the loss of Root's unique artistic vision.

A clear exception was the Reliance Building of 1894. Says Hines, "In 1890, Burnham and Root received a commission to plan and supervise alterations on an older five-story building on the southwest corner of State and Washington streets. Leases for the upper floors would not expire until May 1, 1894, but the owner of the property wanted work to begin immediately on the vacant first floor. Since a tall office building was planned for the site after the lease expirations, Burnham and Root decided to place jacks under the four existing floors, later to be demolished, and to construct the new first floor on a foundation capable of carrying the future fourteen-story building. Yet, by the time the leases on the upper floors had expired, Root was dead."

Burnham worked closely with a new designer in the firm, Charles B. Atwood, and conceived in 1893 a prophetic new plan for the building. Says Hines, "Carrying the possibilities of the steel skeleton frame several steps beyond that of any existing structure, Burnham and Atwood produced a breathtaking glass tower of fourteen stories. Obviously resting on the Chicago steel frame, the building's facade was a tightly stretched skin of glass and terra cotta that confined and articulated the crisp and shallow bays. Over two-thirds of the street-front wall surface was glass--a radical and prophetic ratio that heralded the glass architecture of the twentieth century."

Architecture writer Carl Condit writes, "The windows of the Reliance form the most striking feature of the building. They represent the fullest development of the 'Chicago window,' in which a single large pane of glass fills the whole bay except for narrow movable sash at either end, immediately adjacent to the columns. The movable sash of the Reliance lies in the diagonal planes of the projecting windows and at the extreme edges of the openings lying in the main wall plane . . . They are wholly incorporated into the glass body of the building."

Several years ago, the Reliance Building was restored and is now the Hotel Burnham, a boutique lodging managed by Kimpton Hotels.

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Marshall Field Department Store

The Marshall Field Department Store was built in stages in 1902, 1906, 1907, and 1914. The left image shows the view north along the State Street side of the store circa 1930. Carl Condit states that the store "is slightly in the Chicago tradition with its cellular walls, but the massive construction of the elevations is a throwback to classical masonry forms." Thomas Hines notes that "Burnham especially enjoyed his work for the great merchants." The firm's large department stores were "massive, solid, impressive--and ponderous," with "surface details" that echoed "an enlarged version of both the Roman and Renaissance palazzo traditions."

Despite some critical disagreement as to the esthetics of the exteriors of the department stores built by D. H. Burnham & Company, no one could argue with the efficiency and usefulness of the buildings' layout and design. Large display windows on the street level and plentiful entrances helped draw shoppers in; once they made their way to upper floors, finding the way back out was not so simple. As one looked for the down escalator or the elevator bank, more enticing goods along the way often increased the amount of the sale beyond the original expectations of the shopper. Also, opulent interior surroundings, including balconies with stunning views and Louis Tiffany mosaic ceilings (right image) made any shopper feel like royalty.

While far from the first department store of palatial size to locate on State Street, the Marshall Field Store served as the anchor on the north end of the retail zone, creating the tradition of downtown shopping that dominated retail merchandizing for over half a century. South of the Field Store, such one-time giants in the industry as Levi Leiter, Schlesinger & Mayer, Maurice Rothschild, the Fair Store, and later Carson, Pirie & Scott, Montgomery Ward, Sears Roebuck, Weiboldt, Goldblatt Brothers, Lytton, Kresge, Singer, and Stevens lined both sides of State from Randolph to Congress, with smaller retail stores filling the store fronts in between.

One testament to the lasting appeal of D. H. Burnham's engineering in the Marshall Field Store is simply its longevity as a retail department store. All other 20th century department stores along Chicago's State Street have closed or greatly downsized their retail space. Although the Field Store has struggled with profitability since being acquired by a New York chain (which subsequently eliminated the Field name in favor of its own east coast moniker, a snub many faithful Field customers have yet to forgive), it remains open in much the same size and magnitude of products and services offered. Although the Field name does not live on officially, its local power as a retail icon remains obvious as the new out-of-town overlords take every opportunity to sell nostalgic merchandise and traffic in the tradition of the old store (which they had no part in creating).

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Flatiron Building

By 1900, D. H. Burnham & Company was one of the largest architectural firms in the country, with small satellite offices in New York and San Francisco. Thomas Hines states, "Both offices were established to strengthen the firm's name and reputation on the East and West coasts and for the convenience of the increasing number of clients in those two areas."

One of the most elegant of the firm's designs outside of Chicago was the triangular Flatiron Building, built in 1901. Officially known as the Fuller Building, it was built on an oddly shaped lot on Broadway in New York City. Says Hines, "For years acclaimed as the world's tallest building, the crisp, slender Flatiron, towering over Broadway, was marred only by an overly busy surface ornamentation." The Flatiron was one of six buildings the firm would design in New York City.

Of the 204 buildings D. H. Burnham & Company would design during Burnham's lifetime, 97 were in the Chicago area. Fifty-one others were located in the Midwest, with nine in Cincinnati alone. Seventeen were built in Pittsburgh, out of 37 total in the eastern states. Ten were located in southern states, eight in the west, and one was built in London, England.

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Filene's Department Store

According to Thomas Hines, Edward Filene was criticized in the Boston Herald in 1911 for hiring D. H. Burnham & Company to design his new store, rather than using a hometown Boston architectural firm. Filene responded in September 1911: "Several of your correspondents have criticized the bestowal of important commissions on outside architects, and since the firm of which I am a member has been mentioned among the list of offenders, your readers might be interested in our reasons for making Mr. Daniel H. Burnham of Chicago the architect of our building . . . In keeping with the times, his firm has come to specialize among other things in the architecture of great retail establishments. A part of his organization is exclusively engaged in this work. . . . The modern retail establishment is a very complicated machine for distributing merchandise, and the problems of construction and equipment involved are quite as important as purely architectural considerations. . . It seems to me no reflection on Boston architects that the foremost specialist . . . in department store architecture should come from Chicago, but it should be a reflection on us if we did not try to have the best for our business that was obtainable. I believe this decision will be agreeable to the great body of Boston architects. In painting, the best artists have never been in favor of keeping out foreign works by import duties. No one wants the art museum restricted to work by Boston artists. The bringing of notable foreign art only results in helping American artists. So it is with architecture. Any other view is provincial and unworthy. Boston artists enter freely into the architectural opportunities of other cities . . . Doubtless no one heard of complaints here when other cities demanded our Richardson, nor now in regard to the many buildings our Boston architects are building in other cities."

Other department store buildings designed by D. H. Burnham & Company include the Gimbel Brothers in Milwaukee and New York, John Wanamaker in New York and Philadelphia, Alms & Doepke in Cincinnati, and the Stevens & Brothers Store in Chicago.

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Union Station, Washington D. C.

Daniel Burnham and John Root had established themselves as talented designers for the railroad industry early in their careers. They designed a depot for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy in Burlington, Iowa in 1882, followed by depots for the same railroad in 1883 located in Creston, Iowa and Galesburg, Illinois. After a dozen more small depots from Burnham & Root for several rail companies, D. H. Burnham & Company designed larger stations, beginning with the Cleveland station for the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern and Columbus, Ohio's Union Station, both in 1896.

In 1901, Daniel Burnham was appointed by the U. S. Senate to head a commission to create a comprehensive plan for improvement of Washington D. C. The capital city was originally planned in 1791 by Pierre L'Enfant, but 19th century projects had allowed extensive departures from the original recommendations. According to Thomas Hines, the great Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument "had become, among other things, a common pasture, a lumber yard, and the railroad center of the city, dissected and cluttered by railroad tracks and depot buildings."

Shortly after his appointment with the Washington planning commission, Burnham was also retained to design a new railroad station for the Baltimore & Potomac. He took the opportunity presented by his dual role to convince the railroad of the civic responsibility that vacating the Mall would represent. "Alexander Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which controlled the B & P through stock ownership, was reluctant to give up the central location, and move his holdings elsewhere . . . If the government really intended to improve the Mall, Cassatt stated, he would be willing to give up his . . . location and build a union depot north of the Capitol provided that [Congress] obtained an appropriation of $1,500,000 in partial payment of the tunnel under Capitol Hill. The tunnel would be necessary for maintain rail connections with the South."

Burnham planned Union Station looking south to the Mall and Capitol Hill, "intensely concerned that it complement and ornament the larger commission plan as a 'great and impressive vestibule to Washington.'" The Beaux Arts styling was chosen to blend with the classical architecture of the Capital and other government buildings.

Union Station is today the hub for Amtrak's trains, headquarters and executive offices. It is also a retail center with 130 shops and restaurants and is the site for special events, such as the Presidential Inaugural Ball.

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