Daniel Burnham (American 1846-1912)


Daniel Burnham had a plan, and being part of the City Beautiful movement, he felt that beauty could increase quality of life. He imagined that San Francisco could be redesigned to compete with Paris and other major cities.

His vision was an overall plan that would create a unity in design for the entire city, based on classical architecture. From the region of the Civic Center, he envisioned a wide artery that lead from Market Street to the top of Twin Peaks. A grand staircase would be accessible to all, culminating in a beautifully protected natural amphitheater at the top on the eastern side.

Burnham’s Plan for San Francisco

On the eastern side of the highest peaks of San Francisco he observed a stunning valley with water ways running to the Pacific Ocean, by way of Lake Merced. Today the Muni Train “M”  cuts through these peaks and travels through this valley as it exits the West Portal Tunnel and continues to San Francisco State located near the lake. He dreamed of preserving the vale with its sparkling streams and uninterrupted views.

The view that inspired Burnham to save this area of SF

He had proved his talent in design as the Director of Works for the World’s Fair in Chicago, known as the World’s Colombian Exposition, or “White City.” He also designed the Grand Central Station in NYC, the Rookery Building in Chicago and other large-scale innovative projects around the world.

The Rookery Chicago, where he held his office with partner Root.

Burnham was an advisor for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, where he got to revisit his ideas for SF after most of his them were scrapped after the earthquake of 1906. Unfortunately, this natural disaster shook up the city and stalled his grand plans. This could have been an opportunity to invest full force into the plan but the scale of the destruction was too large. Burnham was only able to influence the design of City Hall and surrounding areas.


To hear a great account of his style and determination, check out the historical novel “The Devil in the White City.” The book gives a great sense of what life was like at the time of his life during the turn of the century, following Burnham and America’s first serial killer during the  Worlds Fair in 1893. Many people today look back to that time and wish to return to that era of innovation. The wonder and accomplishment of that  has left a lasting impression.

Union Station, New York

Burnham envisioned Chicago to be the “Paris on the Prairie,” and was able to use some of his plans for the exposition to make that happen. Still in Chicago, not all of his ideas were realized, however, it is fun to imagine where you would be walking if his plans had been completed. The elegant classical forms would have been inspiring and one might get the feeling of being inside Maxfield Parrish painting with its greek columns and unified design.


“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood. ”

“Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die. ”

Daniel Burnham 1846-1912

Daniel Burnham

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