Burnham VS Sullivan: A Chicago Tour Duel

0 Posted by - June 14, 2016 - Louis Sullivan, Tours

This isn’t simply a tour.  This is going to be a duel.   Between two tour guides, two architectural ideas, two architectural giants.

On Sunday, July 17th at 1 PM, Margaret Hicks (Chicago Elevated) and I present a one-off tour around the Loop in which Margaret represents Daniel Burnham and I represent Louis Sullivan.  We compare, contrast, debate, grapple …and let you decide the outcome.

Tickets are now on sale here.

As an appetizer, a bit of background on the subjects of the duel:

For men who shared so much – an epoch, a profession, prominence, a middle initial – Daniel Hudson Burnham and Louis Henri Sullivan could not have been more different in their architectural approaches and philosophies.















Born in New York, but raised in Chicago, Burnham floundered a bit in his career until 1867 when serving as a draftsman in the firm of William Le Baron Jenney, he wrote, “for the first time in my life I feel perfectly certain that I have found my vocation.”  Later, working at the firm of Carter, Drake and Wight, he met brilliant, cultured, and artistically-gifted John Wellborn Root and in 1873 they formed their own firm.

Their partnership achieved great success with architectural commissions across the country, including three of the most important buildings in Chicago: the Rookery, the Reliance, and the Monadnock.  After Root’s premature death in 1891, Burnham oversaw the wildly successful World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.  His influential firm went on to design many great buildings such as Washington DC’s Union Station and New York’s Flatiron Building.  Burnham achieved further renown in city planning, including the 1909 Plan of Chicago.

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Also from the East, Sullivan came to Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871 to seek his architectural fortune.  After also apprenticing under Jenney, Sullivan joined with Dankmar Adler, whose groundbreaking acoustical engineering and business acumen complemented Sullivan’s innovative design. Their highly successful partnership achieved fame with Chicago’s Auditorium Building, the Transportation Building at the Columbian Exposition, and skyscrapers such as the Wainwright in St. Louis and the Guaranty in Buffalo.  On his own after the two parted ways in 1895, Sullivan’s career peaked with his fin-de-siècle commission for the Carson Pirie Scott store – a distinctive celebration of his art with both modern lines and voluptuous ornament – but went into free fall until his death in 1924.

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As young men, both Sullivan and Burnham struggled with direction and education until paired with well-fitting architectural partners with the resultant opportunities that brought out their brilliance and launched their careers.  Both young men worked under Jenney and both were also influenced by European ideas: Sullivan studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and Burnham’s neoclassical ideas came from the same Beaux Arts tradition.

Yet they took those influences in markedly different directions: Sullivan rejected revivalism, while Burnham embraced it with great success.   Sullivan was the master theorist, the brooding genius, stubbornly sticking to his ideals despite losing commissions, while Burnham was the master planner, genius businessman and man of the world, who successfully adapted and thrived.

Sullivan became a central influence on Frank Lloyd Wright and a major inspiration for mid-twentieth century modernists.  He was the first to create a coherent idea for the tall commercial building –  “form follows function,” as he famously articulated.   Burnham’s planning concepts still influence cities around the world today, especially Chicago where his Plan of 1909 continues to be discussed and implemented.  Burnham’s precept, “make no little plans,” still echoes through the minds of many Chicagoans.

Both men were without question highly influential architects, yet their influence has waxed and waned over the past century.  At the turn of the twentieth century, the zeitgeist was decidedly with Burnham as America embraced the return to classical forms.  Sullivan’s forward-looking ideas were mostly neglected until picked up by European modernist architects.

Today Burnham and Sullivan hold exalted places in architectural history and, through their innovations and ideas, continue to influence buildings and cities.  Their ideas of what architecture should be and what beauty is provide rich fodder for us to ponder…and debate.


Let me know if you have any questions about the July 17th tour duel: 312.810.6609 or wendysue302@yahoo.com



  • becci June 16, 2016 - 7:24 am Reply

    What a great idea, Wendy!

    • Wendy June 16, 2016 - 9:41 am Reply

      Thanks, Becci! I cannot take credit for coming up with it, only developing it. The research for it has been fascinating!

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