Study Guide

Daniel Burnham in The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

By Erik Larson

Daniel Burnham

Burnham's the man with the plan. But don't dismiss him as being merely a planner: the guy has a can-do attitude that makes him pretty much world-famous by the time he dies in 1912.

From being master of basically everything at the Chicago World's Fair, to the dude you call to the rescue when something goes wrong, Burnham makes it all happen.

Early Life

Daniel Hudson Burnham was born in Henderson, New York in 1846. His family instilled in him the principles of "obedience, self-subordination, and public service" (1.2.24). Burnham moved to Chicago when he was nine and was an average student:

He excelled, however, at drawing and sketched constantly. (1.2.24)

Well that explains a lot. At age eighteen, his father hired fancy private tutors to help him study for Harvard and Yale's entrance exams. He was rejected by both schools, but many years later would lobby for his son's admission.

At age twenty-one, Burnham joined a Chicago architectural firm called Loring & Jenney. There he found his calling, he wrote in 1868, and told his parents that he wanted to become "the greatest architect in the city of country" (1.2.25). Nearly twenty-five years later, the fair would give him the opportunity of a lifetime to become the best of the best.

Burnham & Root

At age twenty-five, Burnham meets John Wellborn Root, who's four years young than he is. The two like each other immediately and become business partners:

Something about the partnership with Root bolstered him. It filled an absence and played to both men's strengths. (1.2.27)


The two are offered the opportunity to build the private home of wealthy stockyard superintended John B. Sherman. Burnham marries his daughter Margaret. Meanwhile, Burnham & Root experience explosive growth, working on projects all over Chicago's downtown Loop. They're commissioned to build the tallest office building yet constructed in Chicago, the Montauk. It's so massive that it becomes the first building ever to be called a skyscraper. (By today's standard's, though, it's kind of puny.)

Burnham knew that together he and Root had reached a level of success that neither could have achieved on his own:

Burnham was a talented artist and architect in his own right, but his greatest strength lay in his ability to win clients and execute Root's elegant designs. (1.2.48)

Each recognized the other's skills and the results were both the stuff of great bromance and the stuff of architectural legend.

The two had become wealthy and household names by the time Chicago was looking to score the bid for the fair. The challenge seemed impossible, but the Burnham/Root dynamic duo figured they were the men for the job:

Alone neither architect could have done it, but together, Burnham believed, he and Root had the will and the interlocking powers of organization and design to succeed. (1.2.72)

Burnroot (or is that Rootham?) were going to tackle the challenge head-on.

The World's Fair

Personally for Burnham, the fair had been a triumph. He not only fulfilled his promise to his parents to become the greatest architect in America, but he was also granted honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale. From conception to execution, the fair was Burnham's grand vision:

The exposition was a dream city, but it was Burnham's dream. (3.9.12)

After the fair, Burnham would continue to work on large-scale projects, including the Flatiron Building and Gimbel's department store in Manhattan, and the Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, California.

Unfortunately, the fair was destroyed after the fair ended and of the twenty-seven buildings Burnham and Root built in Chicago's Loop, only three remain today, including the famous Rookery Building.

Still: Burnham's as indisputably a Chicago icon as a ketchup-less hotdog or a slice of Lou Malnati's deep dish.