Lords of the White City: Burnham and Root

The tale of Burnham and Root begins with an ornery bovine.

On the cold, dry night of October 8, 1871, Mrs. O’Leary’s lit lantern rested on her barn’s hay-covered floor on the outskirts of Chicago. The lantern’s dim light provided a warm glow as she milked her cow. An errant kick from the cantankerous beast toppled the lantern and sparked a Great Fire that ravaged Chicago, as the story goes.

Image © Bettmann/CORBIS

Image © Bettmann/CORBIS

At least that’s the lore.

In reality, Catherine O’Leary was already in bed when that fire sparked in her barn.

In 2005, Chicago insurance investigator Richard Bales sifted through all surviving historical forensics evidence. He concluded that the massive Chicago fire wasn’t started by a ill-tempered heifer but the one-legged, pipe-smoking neighbor of Mrs. O’Leary, a man named Daniel Sullivan.

The evidence points to Sullivan enjoying an evening pipe in Catherine O’Leary’s barn. Bales concluded that Sullivan’s discarded match was the source of the blaze.

The fire burned for three days, killing hundreds, devouring 17,500 buildings and scorching 3.3 square miles of Chicago.

The populous heart of the city lay in ruin, leaving 100,000 people homeless.

Almost immediately the tenacious townsfolk of The Windy City set out to rebuild not just the Chicago they once had, but a grander and taller city.

Chance Meeting

John Wellborn Root
John Wellborn Root

Mere months after the blaze, Daniel H. Burnham and John Wellborn Root met as apprentice draftsmen in the offices of Drake, Carter and Wright. Unknown to them at the time, their meeting would drive the future of Chicago architecture.

After the fire, the central heart of the city needed an army of capable architects and builders. Luckily the two friends were just brash enough to deliver on the lofty goal of rebuilding Chicago. Just a year after meeting, Burnham and Root established their own office for architecture. And in 1873, Burnham and Root opened its doors.

Daniel Hudson Burnham, circa 1890
Daniel Hudson Burnham, circa 1890

Fellow architects heaped on praise of the duo’s newly minted architecture firm. Paul Starrett, designer of the Empire State Building, noted, “Daniel Hudson Burnham was one of the handsomest men I ever saw.” He added “It was easy to see how he got commissions. His very bearing and looks were half the battle.”

Paradigm-Shifting Foundation

In the late 1800’s, a large urban building needed its foundation to meet bedrock, which was the solid rock deep below the unconsolidated loose soil. Doing so would provide the structure with the necessary stability for the heavy building materials of this era.


But, rebuilding the city required dealing with the swampy Chicago ground. Nearby Lake Michigan made bedrock unreachable as it sat far below the water-logged topsoil, too far for conventional excavation equipment to reach.

Root created a new type of foundation to combat his city’s troublesome ground composition. Cross-hatching steel beams sitting atop a concrete pad created a grillage or “floating” foundation. Root’s new approach helped Chicago give birth to what we now call skyscrapers.

The Design of Masonry Structures and Foundations explains how these foundations earned the term “floating:”

“In Chicago, buildings placed on grillages are expected to settle owing to the plasticity of the soil, and consequently it has been the custom to set the buildings some 5 to 8 in. above the desired elevation…”

This foundation leveraged the structure’s weight to force the swampy Chicago ground to compress over time and settle firm. This opened the architecture potential for verticality in The Windy City’s buildings and set the precedent for every massive structure that now fills Chicago’s skyline.

The Rookery Building

Chicago's Rookery Building, circa 1891
Chicago’s Rookery Building, circa 1891

Burnham and Root constructed the Rookery Building between 1887-1888. It sat atop the land that held Chicago’s City Hall just two years prior. The plot of land earned the name Rookery long before either of these buildings existed.

Back in the 1850’s, a simple brick water reservoir occupied this space. Over the years, the reservoir became infested with birds that enjoyed the ample water supply and the oats left out for the horses at the fire station across the street.

Years later, the city built a temporary building for City Hall on this same lot. Suddenly the nickname rookery took on new meaning, as a reference to the legislative process that many felt was corrupt. Journalists continued to call Burnham and Root’s new building the Rookery potentially out of habit, but this didn’t seem to bother the two architects.

There seemed to be a conscious effort to link the new building with the old City Hall. “Perhaps Root had the last laugh. He designed open-mouthed crows – or rooks – on the building exterior that are reminiscent of the squawking corrupt city officials that once crowded about City Hall,” explains the building’s official website.

The Rookery used the same Root-designed grillage “floating” foundation. This structure was also built using a hybrid masonry load-bearing exterior with a stable steel skeleton supporting the central court.

Once completed, many debated the design influences of the front façade. Some saw Indian design influences, some noticed Arabian. Others considered it Islamic, Byzantine, Romanesque or Moorish. Many critics found the design lacked unity, while others interpreted the unique mix of patterns as representation of the American melting pot.

Built for commercial business and including space for the new offices of Burnham and Root, the Rookery survived a nearly complete demolition of 19th-century architecture in Chicago. The Rookery still stands and remains open for business to this day. Many have credited the prudent renovations and updates to the structure for its continued use more than a century later.

The Rookery received its first of three major renovations in 1905, which included a main entryway facelift by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright reimagined the entry to the Rookery using his Prairie architecture style. The renovations covered most of Root’s original wrought iron ornamentation with carved white marble surfaces and golden inlays. This brightened up the lobby and bounced more natural light into the interior offices from the center skylight.

The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair

The World’s Columbian Exposition, commonly referred to as The Chicago World’s Fair, honored the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World. Many other cities bid to host the event including New York, Washington D.C., St. Louis.

Perhaps it was destiny, or at least supreme luck, but Chicago edged out the more developed and favored cities of New York and Washington D.C. to hold the world’s attention for six months in 1893.

After much disagreement, the council agreed to hold the fair in Jackson Park on the south side of the city. And as a natural born salesman, Burnham handily secured the responsibility to design and build the fairground facilities.

But one of Burnham’s caveats sent everyone in Chicago up in arms. He never questioned that Root had unparalleled designs, but Burnham felt the need to live up to the true meaning of the fair by inviting creative representation from the all ends of the country. After all, this was not only an honor for the city of Chicago but the whole of America as well.

The duo agreed that the fair’s design would be a sprawling collection of semi-permanent neoclassical buildings. The vast majority of the buildings were composed of a mixture of plaster, cement and jute fiber called staff. The façades were painted a bright white which bounced the light from thousands of Edison’s recently invented incandescent bulbs, which created a gleaming white city on the shore of Lake Michigan.


While the total number of buildings erected for the fair totaled over 200, only two were built to remain permanently. The Palace of Fine Arts and the World’s Congress Auxiliary Building stand to this day. The rest of the buildings were destroyed after the conclusion of the fair.

Frederick Law Olmsted, circa 1893
Frederick Law Olmsted, circa 1893

Root designed the buildings as Burnham began assembling their team of creative professionals from across the nation. Burnham asked Frederick Law Olmstead to design the 600 acres of landscaping for the fair. Law’s landscape design credits include New York City’s Central Park, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, as well as the campuses of Yale and Cornell.

As the fair’s vision began to take focus, it became clear that one pivotal piece was missing. The centerpiece of the fair at that time, the Statue of the Republic, was intended to stand near the center of the grounds much like Disneyland’s Magic Castle. The massive golden statue would beckon visitors deeper into the fair and while it is a stunning sight, the statute would stand far removed from the public, surrounded by water. This would not do for Burnham’s grand vision.

Burnham needed something far more grand, something interactive. Previously, Paris’ 1889 International Exposition created the tallest structure in the world as its centerpiece. A beautiful wrought iron tower named after its creator, Alexandre Gustave Eiffel.

View of Exposition Universelle (Universal Exhibition), Paris, France, 1889, engraving ¥ Credit: [ The Art Archive / MusŽe Carnavalet Paris / Dagli Orti ] ¥ Ref: AA371361
View of Exposition Universelle (Universal Exhibition), Paris, France, 1889 ¥ Credit: [ The Art Archive / MusŽe Carnavalet Paris / Dagli Orti ] ¥ Ref: AA371361

Everyone loved the Eiffel Tower as it captured the imagination of the world, and provided views of Paris never before seen. Despite its beauty, the Statue of the Republic wasn’t capable of communicating the same wonder as the Eiffel Tower. So instantly the discussion turned to the true matter at hand.

Burnham wondered how the duo could possibly “out-Eiffel Eiffel.”

After a nationwide search, they found help from another ubiquitously named man. George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. dreamed up something never before seen. Ferris proposed 36 gondolas, each capable of carrying up to 60 people, attached to an upright and revolving bespoke wheel.

George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., circa 1890s
George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., circa 1890s

The world’s first Ferris wheel provided paying customers an incomparable view from 264 feet above the fair. The attraction granted visitors a level of interactivity that didn’t just match the Eiffel Tower it exceeded expectations by adding the thrill of a ride as it presented a once in a lifetime view.

At full occupancy the wheel would hold 2,160 passengers. As an added treat for visitors, the wheel was outfitted with 3,000 incandescent light bulbs. The sparkling Ferris wheel was surely a highlight for those who traveled far and wide to visit the fair.


A much older Sol Bloom, circa 1923
A much older Sol Bloom, circa 1923

Burnham’s team also included an entertainment impresario from San Francisco. At just 23, Sol Bloom was the baby of the bunch when he joined the group to create the mile-long Midway Plaisance. Later in life, Bloom went on to become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and sat as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Bloom’s Midway included amusements, restaurants, foreign villages and ethnological exhibits. Since the attractions on the Midway were allowed to charge extra beyond general admittance, the Midway Plaisance became a huge financial success!

Parting Ways

Unfortunately, the stress of the fair’s preparation took its toll on Root. John Wellborn Root had spent his all designing the fair’s extensive list of buildings and passed away on January 15, 1891 from pneumonia; two and a half years before Burnham revealed the glory of the White City to the public. Root’s passing only fueled Burnham’s passion for the project. Burnham worked harder and longer each day to create the fair that the duo had envisioned. The Chicago World’s Fair opened as scheduled on May 1, 1893.

In the end, the World’s Columbian Exposition is remembered as a resounding success. Welcoming more than 27 million attendees during the six months the fair operated. That attendance count is even more staggering considering no commercial airlines existed at that time.

Daniel H. Burnham lived for nearly two more decades after the conclusion of the fair, but Root’s passing brought to a close a prolific 18 year partnership.

Burnham continued designing buildings after the passing of his partner under the new company name D. H. Burnham & Co. His post-Root buildings include the famous Flatiron Building in New York City, as well as the Union Station and the Postal Square Building both in Washington D.C.

Lasting Impact

Burnham and Root
Burnham and Root

The Rookery Building still stands and remains operational as of this writing. It provides retail and office space for many companies including US Bank.

It may seem hard to believe that relics of a fair that concluded 121 years ago still exist to this day. But, there are still elements standing and operating now. Burnham built the Palace of Fine Arts with masonry under the semi-permanent plaster, concrete and staff façade. The building still stands, but the original contents moved to the new Field Museum, which was designed in 1920 by D. H. Burnham & Co. The vacated Palace of Fine Arts was then repurposed as the Museum of Science and Industry.

The Midway Plaisance remains as well, albeit without any of the restaurants, attractions or foreign villages. Over the years, the University of Chicago’s campus overtook the grounds. The wide open space became a place for the school’s football team to practice which lead to the team gaining the nickname “Monsters of the Midway,” which was later applied to the Chicago Bears when the University of Chicago suspended its football program.

The grillage “floating” foundation continued to be included in emerging skyscraper designs and is still a viable solution for buildings on soft or permanently water-logged soil.

In the end, Burnham and Root together shifted the architectural paradigm and created structural treasures that will hopefully remain intact and operational for many years to come.