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DANIEL BURNHAM CHICAGO BUILDINGS

A guide to the history and architecture behind the famous city planner.

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The Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and the Plan of Chicago (1909) have made lasting impressions on the city and architect Daniel Burnham was the man behind both of these transformative events. Explore Chicago history and architecture as you visit significant sights that bear his influence.

Burnham and Root

Over the course of their eighteen-year partnership, Chicago architects Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root designed many striking commercial buildings. While no longer standing, The Montauk Building (1882-83) stood at 130 feet tall and is considered the first to be labeled a "skyscraper."

Built from 1885-86, The Rookery (209 S. LaSalle Street) still stands in the Loop at LaSalle and Adams Streets. At 16 stories, it is one of the oldest high-rise buildings in Chicago and it is a magnificently detailed combination of skeletal iron framing and load-bearing walls. Enter inside to see its stunning, sky-lit interior light court and spiraling cast iron staircase. Frank Lloyd Wright redesigned the lobby in 1905 and you can get details on building tours from the foundation at gowright.org. From the outside, admire the bold façade of red granite, brick and terra cotta ornament.

The Reliance Building (32 N. State Street), whose base was constructed in 1890, was completed by Charles B. Atwood after Root's death in 1891 (after which the firm became known as D.H. Burnham & Company). Unlike its heavy, blocky counterparts of the time, this glass window-covered building with its thin bands of cream-colored terra cotta almost seemed to defy gravity. Beautifully restored and now home to the boutique Hotel Burnham, its legacy can be traced in the elevator lobby through historic photos. Take a peek at the before-and-after images and be sure to also check out the ornamental elevator grilles, marble walls and mosaic tile.

The Monadnock Building (53 W. Jackson Boulevard) is a solid example of load-bearing masonry construction, which was common in the earliest skyscrapers of that era. Sturdy, six-feet wide walls at the base give it its solid bearing and support the full weight of the 16-story walls. The original building was constructed from 1889-91 and you can look to the southern addition on Van Buren Street to see the development of modern architecture as this was constructed in 1991-93 with a steel frame.

Other notable building designs from Burnham include:

  • The Santa Fe Building (224 S. Michigan Avenue), also known as the Railway Exchange Building, which served as his office and is currently home to the Chicago Architecture Foundation
  • Macy's on State Street (111 N. State Street) the "grand dame" of Chicago department store buildings, which is finely designed and detailed in the Classical Revival style with The Great Clocks keeping watch on the outside and lavish interiors that boast two atria decorated with stained glass and Tiffany mosaics, plus the Burnham Fountain (known also as "The Lost Fountain")
  • Union Station (210 S. Canal Street), with its soaring Great Hall, covers an entire city block with its Beaux Arts design

The Chicago World's Fair of 1893

An international gathering to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New World, the World's Columbian Exposition was a defining moment in Chicago and US history. Partners Burnham and Root were hired as chief architects of the buildings, though after Root's death, it was Burnham's vision that resulted in the "White City," an architectural showcase for boulevards, gardens, and Beaux-Arts neoclassicism.

The transformation of the Jackson Park fairgrounds was a very early example of city planning and later influenced Burnham's Chicago plan. Jackson Park (6401 S. Stoney Island) today features the Osaka Garden, which replaces the fair's original Japanese Pavilion. Wooded Island, which was the center of the fair with lagoons and buildings surrounding it, remains today as a tranquil space for visitors to stroll, as well as for the wildlife that has settled there.

Plan of Chicago (1909)

Following the Columbian Exposition, Burnham presented proposals for reconfiguring Chicago's lakefront with landscaped green space connecting Jackson Park with a redesigned Lake Park (the area that we know as Grant Park). With Edward Bennett, he developed The Plan of Chicago in 1909, with its interconnected system of parks, waterways and public spaces that saw an improved city living standard. This urban planning document envisioned many of the city's most distinctive features, including:

  • Navy Pier (600 E. Grand Avenue) - Burnham originally wanted two piers jutting out into Lake Michigan, but only one was built at that time
  • Northerly Island (1521 S. Linn White Drive) - Burnham recommended five man-made islands stretching south along the coast of Lake Michigan but only one of the islands was built
  • Grant Park (337 E. Randolph Street) - Burnham's plan proclaimed "The lakefront by right belongs to the people" and to this day, it remains an open and free green space for relaxation and recreation and is referred to as everyone's "front yard"

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