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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 356

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This is the grave of Daniel Burnham.

Born in 1846 in Henderson, New York to a Swedenborgian family, as a young man he failed to get into either Harvard or Yale and also failed at an initial attempt to enter politics. Instead, he became an architectural draftsman in Chicago, where the family had moved around 1854. That worked out pretty well for him.

When Burnham was 26, he took a job with the Chicago firm of Carter, Drake, and Wight. There, he met his future partner John Wellborn Root. They established their own firm the next year, in 1873. They made their money building gigantic Gilded Age homes for Chicago’s meat capitalists. That they both married wealthy certainly didn’t hurt either, as their wives provided both of them financial stability to take risks. Burnham was the big picture guy and the salesman while Root was probably the better architect. But Burnham was very good at impressing the newly wealthy elite of Chicago.

By the early 1890s, Burham and Root were designing some of the world’s first skyscrapers. Root deserves more credit for the design, but Burnham sold the idea. They built early skyscrapers such as the Masonic Temple in Chicago in 1892 (torn down in the 30s). They then got the contract to build the White City for Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Root died in 1891 and that left Burnham to rely on his own architectural skills to lead the way. They may not have been the equal of Root, but he was no slouch. While the building at the Exposition was notoriously cheap, as none of it was intended to last, the White City certainly impressed the throngs of people who visited. In this, Burnham worked with a number of leading architects, including Frederick Law Olmstead and Louis Sullivan, to change Root’s modern design to one that promoted the Classical Revival. The White City helped popularize neo-classical architecture and the Beaux-Arts movement in the United States.

Burnham would go on to design some of the nation’s most iconic buildings, especially the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, as well as the Continental Trust Building in Baltimore. But what Burnham is really known for later in life is his interest in comprehensive urban planning. The famous Plan of Chicago was his baby. He co-wrote the plan with Edward Bennett. Calling for big neoclassical buildings to raise the moral standards of the immigrant hordes (didactic architecture is the best) and parks within walking distance of all citizens, the Plan did do much to beautify Chicago and shape the city as it exists today. That was especially true of the lakefront parks that Chicago is so known for today. He wanted straight streets such as Paris had implemented under Haussmann. He believed the car would allow the urban dwellers to visit the countryside and be rejuvenated by it. Like most American urban planners, Burnham fundamentally distrusted the city. But he completely missed how the car itself would transform the city. Burnham would go on to work on comprehensive urban planning documents for cities as diverse as San Francisco and Manila. As is normal in these sorts of things, only parts of any of the plans were actually implemented, but it’s hard to find too many people more influential on the development of the twentieth-century city than Burnham.

Burham died in 1912 in a car accident while vacationing in Germany. He is buried in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois, along with his wife, who outlived him by more than 30 years.

If you would like this series to visit more architects, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Frank Lloyd Wright is at his Talesian West house in Scottsdale, Arizona and Eero Saarinen is in Troy, Michigan. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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