Later this summer, the Burnham Plan Centennial committee will reveal the lineup for its yearlong celebration of Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago. The festivities kick off next June with a Millennium Park concert, and quite a few of the 103 living Burnham descendants are expected to attend—though they might just as likely be adjusting the stage configurations or reappraising the Grant Park landscape. More than 95 years after the death of the family’s progenitor, the robust Burnham gene endures, manifesting itself in architecture and the arts.
The design branch of the Burnham family line started in 1876, the same year the 29-year-old architect married Margaret Sherman, the daughter of John B. Sherman, one of the founders of the Union Stock Yards. Two of their five children—Hubert and Daniel Jr.—were architects, and similar to their old man, they helped mastermind a Chicago world’s fair (in 1933). With the lawyer George Kelly, the Burnhams’ second daughter, Margaret, had five children. One of them, Barbara, studied at the Rhode Island School of Design (before eloping with Carl Pfaffmann); another,
Margaret, was an architect, also in Rhode Island. George and Margaret Kelly’s son Burnham taught at MIT (where he wrote an influential book about prefab housing) and, from 1960 to 1971, served as the dean of Cornell University’sarchitecture school.
“Family reunions in the 1980s resembled AIA conventions,” recalls Rob Pfaffmann, Burnham’s great-great-grandson, referring to the professional society the American Institute of Architects. Pfaffmann, it should be noted, is an architect and planner in Pittsburgh.
The Burnham gene also pops up in Indiana, where Daniel Burnham IV is a horticulturist involved in land conservation and preservation. Near San Francisco, Shannon Burnham Kirby—the granddaughter of Daniel and Margaret’s son Hubert—runs a residential interior design firm. Her sister Mardi Brayton, a conceptual artist, is married to an architect, and her second cousin, Nina Williams, has herown interior design company.
George Burnham Wells—he’s the great-grandson of Burnham’s eldest child, Ethel—also lives near San Francisco. A photographer, a sculptor, and an occasional architect, he graduated from UCLA—where he met Thomas Hines, the author of the definitive Burnham biography—and earned an advanced degree in architecture at UIC. While studying in Chicago, Wells experienced what he calls “the full weight of [his] heritage” when one of his final exams was held in Burnham Hall. “I shook like a leaf in a stiff Chicago breeze,” he says—an image his august ancestor could easily embrace.
Photography: (vallas) AP Photo/ Bill Haber
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