After some failed attempts at academic and political careers, Daniel Hudson Burnham started working in an architects’ office in Chicago. His professional future was sealed when he met his future businnes partner there, John Wellborn Root. Together, they were to play a leading role in the creation of the modern skyscraper.
The two architects complemented each other wonderfully: Daniel Burnham was considered the pragmatist while Root was esteemed for his wealth of invention. Together the pair built a significant proportion of the architecture that has become known as the “Chicago School.”
Skyscrapers in Downtown Chicago
In the last quarter of the 19th century, the first skyscrapers began to shoot up in Chicago. Above all in the Loop, the rapidly growing business district of the city, there was a shortage of building land, and only upwards was there no restriction on space. In 1889-1891, Burnham and Root added the Monadnock Building to the ever more imposing skyline. The building was 17 stories high, making it the largest office building of its time. Thick walls still formed the supporting elements of the building, but with the next project the architects were already exploring new techniques. In 1890 they began the Reliance Building, whose 61 metres of height combine steel, terracotta and, above all, glass.
When Root died in 1891, Charles A. Atwood took over his role on this project, and it is on his designs that the more open facade of the upper floors is based. Unlike the ground and first floor, it is decorated with ornamentation and designed in a more transparent way. Characteristic, above all, are the so-called “Chicago windows,” which are inset into the frame structure. They consist of a large glass pane flanked by two narrow panes that can be opened. Burnham & Company continued to celebrate their successes. Their Masonic Temple with its 22 stories was even—though only for a short time—the tallest building in the world. In 1893 Daniel Burnham became chief architect of the Chicago World’s Fair.
Burnham left his lasting mark on the cityscape not only in Chicago, but also in New York. The site on the corner of Broadway and Fifth Avenue in the heart of Manhattan seemed hardly suitable for building on: it was not only narrow in the extreme but triangular. Yet the ground plan seems to have inspired Daniel Burnham, who used the available surface area in a positively exemplary manner. The Fuller Building, which he built there in 1902, was one of New York’s first high-rise buildings.
The 20-stories high building is better known as the Flatiron Building, a nickname it owes to its ground-plan form, which does indeed look like that of a pressing iron. Built in the form of a metal skeleton, the building towers up to 91 metres, with the framework concealed by the terracotta facade and not recognizable from the outside. The Flatiron Building was not able to claim the title of the tallest building in the world, but even today it can easily defend its status as an architectural icon.