Saturday, November 21, 2009

DANIEL BURNHAM. The Edison Building. Variations on a Theme

A Play in Five Acts. A Sonnet with patterned rhythm and rhyme. Both allow creativity within a framework. And Variations on a Theme.

The Edison Building is immediately recognizable as a Daniel Burnham Building. Tripartite Design. Classic Details. Monumental Cornice. And home to an important turn-of-the-century Chicago corporation. What is not so obvious to the modern eye, are the variances from one Burnham building to the other. In this case a piano nobile rests on a simple base, not on the ground. Corinthian Columns, flattened at the solid corners support a continuous lintel. Office windows span each bay in groups of threes. The loggia is arched; the Building's surface heavily textured. Each decision was consciously made.

These kinds of arbitrary aesthetic decisions seem foreign to us. Until we look across the street, and attempt to recreate the historical precedents that surround Mies' late mid-century Federal Center, or attempt to follow the decision process that wrapped a steel H-section in layers of fireproofing and cladding to mimmick cladding and structure. Or conclude that black was the only appropriate building color.

The design processes, including the arbitrary decisions made in the name of the current definition of "beauty", remain fundamentally the same.


The Edison Building has been much changed. Its towering loggia is now dwarfed by surrounding buildings. The original banking room is gone. And the cornice. And a black band (that once housed a snow-melting heatlamp) wraps the building at the base of the columns. Some column piers have been reduced or relocated. Still, enough remains to give a good sense of what the Building once was -- and what the 1905 definition of "beauty" might have included. Use these links for an historic look at the first floor COLUMN BASE and the ORIGINAL CORNICE.

Laughing, even at myself, I have to admit that Mies was right. "God is in the Details, " he said. I'll be presenting additional details from the Edison Building in future posts.



  1. Love your pictures! Images in the Loop is very nice.

  2. As I was re-reading this one of your older posts.. I got to say, you have got to document your observations!!
    What a fantastic text.. so much to enjoy!