Another Centennial: Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago (1909)
Helping to Make Chicago What it is Today
One hundred years later, what would Burnham think?
The miles of lakefront development on Lake Michigan are a hugely attractive feature of the Windy City. People can walk or run for miles; there are beaches for swimming and places for picnics; we can watch the boats, or go on a cruise and look at the skyline and the parks from a different vantage point. In so many ways, the city nowadays celebrates the waterfront.
Grant Park, a large 320 acres, has Buckingham Fountain, many gorgeous spring, and summer, gardens, the Museum Campus, and is also the venue for some of the biggest summer events, for example, the Chicago Blues Festival and Taste of Chicago.
Millennium Park, finished in 2004 (started 1997), smaller at 24.5 acres, is filled with stunning public art, such as the now-iconic sculpture “Cloud Gate” by Anish Kapoor, known affectionately as “The Bean”.
But, Burnham’s plan was about much more than just the waterfront. He had big ideas for the city and its development.
Some background: Various men of vision made Chicago what it is today. One was Montgomery Ward, wealthy from a catalogue business, who launched a 13-year court battle to save Grant Park from public buildings and campaigned to beautify the area. City Hall, the local press, and the business community opposed him, calling him an obstructionist. But, in the end Ward won and established the concept that the whole of Chicago’s lakefront should be preserved, open and free.
Then came the architect Daniel Burnham. He laid out the principle of a pristine lakefront in his famous city plan of 1909. Burnham was a man of big ideas and the energy to see them through. “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood”, he famously declared and he put that ambition to work as director of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He and his partner Charles Atwood designed the Beaux Arts structures of the Exposition. To the millions of visitors to the fair, Burnham’s White City, as it was known, was the epitome of classical splendor and it later served as a model for the City Beautiful movement that wanted to change the squalor of congested, coal-blackened cities with sensible planning and Beaux Arts architecture. In 1905 he was commissioned to create plans for San Francisco and Manila. Working with his assistant Edward Bennett, he applied what he’d learned to his 1909 Plan of Chicago —a kind of magna carta of urban planning, with sweeping proposals for transportation, recreation, and culture.
No other plan has influenced Chicago’s growth as much. The plan resulted in a string of lakefront parks and beaches, including Jackson Park and Washington Park; the acquisition of a greenbelt of forest preserves on the city’s periphery; the construction of Chicago’s main post office; and the site of the Eisenhower Expressway.
But, Burnham’s influential Plan of Chicago didn’t always materialize as he intended. As he recommended, the city’s lakefront has been almost entirely reserved for public parks. But, in 1965 when the city got round to building a new civic center it wasn’t a Beaux Arts palace. Instead the city built the Richard J. Daley Center, a skyscraper faced in warm brown steel, its plaza dominated by a sculpture by Picasso that is sometimes likened to the head of an Afghan hound—not a heroic classical figure. However, other parts of his plan were implemented, such as double-decker Wacker Drive, designed to route truck traffic around the business district, so the lakefront was more attractive; the ornate Union Station, planned to secure Chicago’s place as the Midwest hub of transportation and shipping; and the large expanse of parkland that separates the skyscrapers from the lakefront, leaving the lakefront “Forever open, free, and clear.”
Burnham devised his famous Plan of Chicago in the 17-storey Santa Fe Building on south Michigan Avenue (opposite the Art Institute). It’s now home, appropriately it seems, to the Chicago Architecture Foundation, which has galleries on the architectural history of the city and which offers free walking tours of the city’s architectural highlights, plus a boat tour.
For the Centennial, many events are planned throughout the year, with the centerpiece being two temporary pavilions in Millennium Park. Many educational programs will reflect back on the legacy of the 1909 Plan, and also look forward to bold new plans. A documentary called “Make No Little Plans—Daniel Burnham and the American City” is due to premier in summer 2009. One special event by and for school children will take place when 152 kids come together to make a living map.
See here for more on special projects:
The Art Institute is hosting an exhibit on Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago, which runs through December 2009 in Gallery 24. It presents 32 prized illustrations selected from the Department of Architecture and Design’s collection in five separate rotations.
I don’t work for the Chicago CVB (or any other CVB), but still I say, Come and enjoy this great city, come and experience all this wonderful lakefront parkland.