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Hotel Burnham

Located in the heart of Chicago's loop, the Hotel Burnham is one of the most important early skyscrapers in America. Originally built as the Reliance Building, it was designed by John Root and Charles B. Atwood of the Burnham and Root architectural firm. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. David W. Dunlap wrote in the New York Times (July 25, 1999):

"Six decades ahead of its time, the chrystalline Reliance Building soared skyward in 1895 as a scintillating rebuke to its own somber masonry surroundings like a diamond in the rough-hewn loop."

A forerunner of the modern skyscraper, the Reliance has a steel-frame construction that supported a 14-floor structure. Its wall-to-wall windows present a slim, light and modern facade in contrast to contemporary structures. After its opening as the premier office building in Chicago, it provided office space for merchants, health professionals and Al Capone's dentist. During the Great Depression, the Reliance struggled to stay occupied and slowly fell into disrepair. After years of neglect and deterioration, the building was rehabilitated and restored in 1999 and was converted into the Hotel Burnham under the initiative of the City of Chicago, the McClier Corporation and the Baldwin Development Company. The Canal Street Partners purchased the building and invested another $22 million into recreating the building's historic exterior and interior public spaces. The operator is the Kimpton Hotel Group.

Its lobby features a one-of-a-kind mosaic-tile floor, multi-colored marble walls and metal elevator grills. Winding through the upper floors is the original open cast-iron staircase, whose elegant balustrade carries the same decorative device– a four-petal Gothic flower, or a quatrefoil– that is used in the undulating ribbons of white terra cotta on the exterior. Rather than enclosing this staircase as current building codes require, the developers installed two new enclosed stairways through the building.

The upstairs rooms, originally built as offices for doctors and dentists were too small to be converted into acceptable hotel rooms. The Kimpton Hotel Group commissioned the interior design firm Intra-Spec of Marina Del Rey, California to create and design new hotel rooms utilizing romantic icons, including the cherub and the swan.

In an October 2001, Lodging magazine article "(Shabby No More)", Kathleen Cassedy described the Burnham's interiors:

As for the lobby, the decor is reminiscent of an early 20th-century gentlemen's club. Deco-style chairs and plush leather sofas surround the requisite lobby fire-place found at all Kimpton hotels.....

The Burnham's top seven floors are the most historic– they retain the original ornate cast-iron balustrade that winds through an open stairwell....

The New York Times (August 16, 2012) wrote:

This is perhaps the most charming hotel in the city. Located in the theater district and built in 1896 by Daniel Burnham. It served as a steel-and-glass model for the nation's first skyscrapers. The rooms are stylishly decorated and the warm, wood-paneled lobby feels like an Ivy League Library.

*excerpted from my book "Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi"

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About Stanley Turkel

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Public Profile

Stanley Turkel, CMHS is a New York-based hotel consultant specializing in hotel-related expert witness and franchising services. He was designated as the 2015 and 2014 Historian of the Year by Historic Hotels of America, an official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. To order his books, Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry; Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York; Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi; and Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt and Oscar of the Waldorf, go to stanleyturkel.com and click on "books."

Turkel can be reached at stanturkel@aol.com or (917) 628-8549.