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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Daniel Burnham

Daniel Burnham's most famous building, strangely enough, went up in New York City, not in his native Chicago. (It's undoubtedly familiar looking. Can you name it?
When we think of Chicago and its role as a major birthplace of modern American architecture, very often the name of Frank Lloyd wright comes to mind first and foremost. That's fine except that Wright's primary emphasis was domestic architecture, while the real soaring strides being made had little to do with either Wright or the houses he designed in Chicago's Forest Park and nearby Oak Park. The real powerhouse architects behind the rebuilding and modernization of Chicago following the disastrous 1871 fire which swept clean virtually all of the downtown hub of the city, were Louis Sullivan, Dankmar Adler, John Wellborn Root, and his partner, Daniel Burnham. Wright was younger than the others, and even worked for and with them at times, nonetheless his contribution to the Chicago skyline was minimal. Aside from an apprenticeship with Adler and Sullivan and the 1905 remodeling of the lobby of Burnham and Root's 1888 Rookery, Wright left virtually no mark whatsoever on beautiful downtown Chicago.

Burnham and his firm eventually designed twelve buildings
in Chicago alone, along with forty-eight elsewhere in
the East and Midwest. In contrast, Adler and Sullivan
designed only eight.
Daniel Burnham was born in 1846 along the shores of Lake Ontario's Henderson, (northern) New York. He was raised in Chicago, Illinois. He didn't exactly get off to a great start, having failed admissions exams for both Harvard and Yale as well as an unsuccessful stint in politics. Burnham apprenticed as a draftsman under William LeBaron Jenney. He was twenty-six when he moved on to the Chicago offices of Carter, Drake, and Wight. There he met future business partner John Wellborn Root. The firm of Burnham and Root caught the brass ring of success as the architects of the Masonic Temple Building, one of the first skyscrapers in Chicago. At twenty-one stories and 302 feet in height, the temple held claim as the tallest building of its time (which lasted from 1894 until 1899). The building, with it's wholly inadequate elevators, was torn down in 1939. Under the design influence of Root, the firm produced nearly a dozen modern buildings as part of the Chicago School. Root died of pneumonia in 1891, after which time the firm became known as D.H. Burnham & Company.
Burnham's overall plan for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition on Chicago's lakefront.
The second "big break" for Daniel Burnham and his fledgling architectural firm cam in the form of his appointment as Director of Works for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, at the time the largest world's fair in the history of world's fairs. Burnham found himself in the enviable position of coordinating the design works of some of the best architects of the time, including Sullivan, Charles McKim, and Frederick Law Olmsted. Under Burnham's direction, the construction of the Fair overcame huge financial and logistical hurdles, including a worldwide financial panic and an extremely tight timeframe, to open on time. Only the world's first Ferris Wheel was late (by two weeks).

Burnham's buildings were all in the classical mode, or what was sometimes called the Beaux Arts style. 
Burnham's firm went on to design and build around sixty building over the course of the next twenty years. Among them were important office and commercial structures in Cincinnati, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and as far away as the Philippine Islands in the Pacific. There was little in the way of daring or groundbreaking innovation as to style. Sullivan and Wright were both critical of Burnham's prolonged attachment to classic Greco-Roman facades and decoration. But Burnham was building soaring skyscrapers literally all over the world while Wright and Sullivan were barely eking out a living trying to break Burnham's mold. Undoubtedly Daniel Burnham's most famous building, rising from a triangular lot formed by Fifth Avenue and Broadway in New York City, must have been particularly irksome.

Burnham designed the Flatiron Building as a vertical Renaissance
palazzo with Beaux-Arts styling. It's hard to imagine a building more
out-of-step with the dawning of 20th-century New York architecture.
The year was 1902. In 1899 a real estate developer named William Eno bought the lot for $30,000 when his father's estate was liquidated. Three weeks later he sold it for $801,000. The buyers intended to put up a twelve-story apartment building, but the project lagged on for two years at which time the owners sold the lot for $2-million to the Fuller Company, a full-service construction firm specializing in skyscrapers. They did everything but design them. That fell to Daniel Burnham--his first building in New York City. From Eno's triangular "flatiron" lot rose the Fuller Building, which soon came by the nickname of the "Flatiron Building."

A typical Flatiron Building floor plan. The only problem
was that Burnham and Company forgot to include women's restrooms on each floor. The solution involved alternating
the restroom gender designations by floor. That way,
everyone was inconvenienced equally.
The building was never the tallest skyscraper in New York City, though it was, for a time the only such structure north of Fourteenth Street. Building the Flatiron was made feasible by an 1892 change in New York City's building codes, which eliminated the requirement that masonry had to be used for fireproofing considerations. This made possible steel-skeleton construction, which meant the building could be built to twenty-two stories (285 feet) in height with relative ease, a feat quite difficult using traditional masonry construction. Moreover, it was a construction technique familiar to the Fuller Company. Once construction began, work proceeded at an amazing pace. The steel was so meticulously pre-cut that the frame went up at the rate of one floor each week. By February 1902 the frame was complete, and by mid-May the building was half-covered by terra-cotta tiling. Final completion came in June 1902, after just one year of construction.

Edward Steichen's 1903 photo of the Flatiron Building is
one of the earliest experimental uses of color film. Alfred Stieglitz's winter scene dates from 1902. 
Stieglitz and Steichen weren't the first or the last to find the Flatiron Building a fascinating subject for their talents. As an icon of New York City, the landmark is a popular spot for tourist photographs, making it possibly one of the most photographed buildings in the world. But it is also a functioning office building which is currently the headquarters of several publishing companies. The Flatiron's interior is known for having strangely-shaped offices with walls that cut through at an angle on their way to the skyscraper's famous point. These "point" offices are the most coveted and feature amazing northern views that look directly upon another famous Manhattan landmark, the Empire State Building (below).

A "point" room with a view. Just don't
open the windows; the drafts are said to
 be quite...drafty.


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