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"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood"
Daniel H. Burnham, Director of Works, Columbian Exposition, 1893


Daniel H. Burnham was born in Henderson, New York, on September 4, 1846. He moved with his family to Chicago in 1855, where his father established a successful wholesale drug business. Burnham was a lackluster student whose only talent seemed to be drawing; he sketched constantly, both in class and outside it, but his grades in school remained dismal. Frustrated after being rejected from both Harvard and Yale, he tried his hand at several careers, first as a draftsman, a profession that he seemed to love, then as a miner in Nevada, even selling plate glass after the Great Chicago fire. But in 1872, when he was hired as a draftsman with the architect Peter Wight, Burnham realized that he had discovered his calling.

It was at Wight's firm that Burnham met John Wellborn Root. Born in 1850 in Lumpkin, Georgia, Root was a musical prodigy who could sing before he could talk, and who had studied civil engineering at New York University before becoming a draftsman. Burnham and Root took to each other immediately, first becoming friends, then eventually partners. A few years later, the two of them would start their own firm.

Root's artistic brilliance and creativity complemented Burnham's extraordinary managerial and organizational skills. Together, they built some of the most distinctive buildings in Chicago: The Montauk (1882), the Rookery (1886), and the Monadnock (1891). The Montauk is famous as the first building to be known as a skyscraper. In 1881, thanks to Otis elevators, buildings of previously impractical heights were now possible, but technical problems plagued early builders. Chicago's unusually deep, hard-to-get-to bedrock, and shifting sediment in the ground were particular challenges to Burnham and Root in their quest to build ever taller buildings. Root was the one who proposed the ingenious idea of "grillage": a floating foundation built on the first reasonably firm layer of clay below the ground, which effectively created a stratum of artificial bedrock. This idea enabled the two men to construct the Montauk, the world's first skyscraper. The combination of Root's innovative flair and Burnham's genius for the business side of things led their firm into prosperity, allowing them to take on ever more challenging and daring projects in what would come to be known as the heyday of architectural invention.

On February 14, 1890, when the announcement came that Chicago would host the Columbian World's Fair, Burnham and Root were the best-known architects in Chicago, rivaling the fame of New York's Frederick Law Olmsted, the "Wizard of Central Park." Burnham and Root were natural choices as the lead designers of the White City—an architectural and aesthetic marvel unlike anything the world had ever seen.




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