Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood… Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.

Daniel Burnham

Daniel Burnham was 26 years old when he moved to Chicago and joined the architecture firm Carter, Drake, and Wright. The year was 1872, and the city had been devastated by a terrible fire the prior year, one that destroyed the overwhelming majority of downtown. Here he met John Root, a 21 year old, and the two, guided by Burnham’s vision for what a majestic Chicago could be, would shape the city and its appearance to this day.

In 1881, the firm of Burnham and Root was hired to build a brand new type of building. The Montauk Building, at ten stories tall, was the tallest building in the city at the time. Burnham declared that its height allowed it to scrape the sky, and so the skyscraper was born. Burnham and Root designed it to withstand the city’s wet soil by digging down and creating an artificial bedrock of cement upon a hard clay layer, again a new method that would become used regularly in building design moving forward. The building was made of concrete and steel, both for stability and for fire-resistance, and was so tall – for the time – that some potential tenants refused to occupy the higher floors.

The Rookery, built in 1885.

While the Montauk was demolished in 1902, Burnham and Rook’s 1885 Rookery Building stands to this day, the oldest skyscraper in the city. At twelve stories, it was again a marvel of design, and the two even moved their offices to the top floor. The load-bearing walls are the exterior ones of the square building, and the interior steel frame allows for a more airy feel. While the outside facade of the building is unremarkable, it is the interior lobby, designed in 1905 by Frank Lloyd Wright, that makes The Rookery a must-visit for an architecture fan.

The lobby of The Rookery.

Only a short walk from The Rookery is the logical extension of Daniel Burnham’s vision for a Chicago reaching upward rather than outward. At 110 floors tall, the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) is the tallest building in the city, and in the top 25 in the world. Completed in 1974, the Willis Tower is actually nine towers in one, each rising to a different height for stability purposes. This methodology was both revolutionary, and also an extension of a Chicago style, where a taller central tower would rise out of shorter and squatter wings to skirt height restrictions for construction. (Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s current tallest building, is also done with multiple towers of different heights for stability.)

The Willis (Sears) Tower

The Willis Tower is big enough to have its own zip code, more than 100 elevators, and forces offices to open in shifts so as not to overwhelm the lobby and street. It is also among the most environmentally friendly buildings in the world, being certified LEED platinum, an incredibly feat for a nearly 50 year old building, let alone one of this size.

John Root would pass away in 1891 of pneumonia, and the “new” firm of D.H. Burnham and Company took over Burnham and Root’s commission of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, known as the World’s Colombian Exposition. Chronicled in the book “Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson (a wonderful read for architecture fans), the world’s fair would put Chicago on the map, as it were, and put Daniel Burnham onto architecture’s Mount Rushmore. Design of the fairgrounds, none of which remains standing today, would be regarded as the first modern integrated city planning document, and the grand boulevards, classical building facades, and green spaces would be used as a model for the design of modern Chicago.

A stroll down (or up) Michigan Avenue brings Daniel Burnham’s vision to life. Grant Park, entrance framed by classical sculpture, serves as an urban oasis. From here, the wide boulevard and its flower-lined median continues past the Greek-inspired Art Institute of Chicago and over the Chicago River to the Wrigley and Tribune buildings, sitting just across the street from one another, each topped with a neo-classical headpiece. This is the Chicago of the “white city,” the one Daniel Burnham envisioned.

Michigan Avenue buildings reflected in “The Bean.”

While Daniel Burnham’s post-fair commissions would include some of the most famous buildings outside of Chicago (like New York’s Flatiron Building, Philadelphia’s Land Title Building, and Los Angeles’ Mount Wilson Observatory), it is his impact on Chicago that is most lasting. Published in 1909, Burnham authored the “Plan of Chicago” with Edward Bennett, laying out plans for the future of the city, calling for it to be the “Paris on the prairie.” Some of its features were revolutionary; it called for controlled and planned urban growth, for every citizen to live within walking distance of a park, and for a city-sponsored public works program to beautify the urban core.

Tall buildings and green spaces are the hallmark of Burnham’s Chicago. This is the entrance to Grant Park.

Daniel Burnham passed away in 1912 at the age of 65, but his influence on Chicago and the modern skyscraper lives on. Today, Chicago boasts 130 skyscrapers (defined as buildings of 150 meters – 492 feet – or taller, a far cry from the Montauk Building or The Rookery), good for seventh in the world. Burnham’s vision of a planned beautiful city reaching into the heavens is alive and well, and each new construction only seems to honor the “father of the skyscraper” more.

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