BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

My kind of town …

Oh, my … a book purchased at full retail at an actual store (with sales tax and everything) … what is this world coming to?! I picked up a copy of Carl Smith's The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City over at the Chicago History Museum after a largely fruitless visit to get Daughter #2 up to speed on her Social Studies Fair project on “the Burnham Plan”. While they had a copy of the original Plan book on display, that was pretty much all they had on this, so I was forced into “plan B” (for the “B. Plan” … heh!), and, not wanting to invest $85 in the centennial facsimile edition, picked up this to tide her over. Now, at age 11, she really wasn't particularly interested in reading it, but she looked at the pictures, scanned over parts, and felt that she'd gotten what she needed (a non-web source?) out of it.

I'd always known of “the Burnham plan”, but really didn't know much about it, except for that it was the source of the idea that Chicago should have parks up and down its lakefront, as opposed to the shipping you see in Milwaukee, or the heavy industry you see in Gary. Being a “city boy” my whole life, and living first in Lincoln Park and then the Gold Coast, the lakefront park system (and museums, etc.) have been a great boon, and I was quite appreciative of the fact that these were planned features. I did not know, however, how extensive the plan had been, and, realistically, how little of it had actually been implemented.

Officially simply titled The Plan of Chicago, it was published on July 4, 1909. It was spurred on by The Commercial Club of Chicago, which included most of the leading businessmen of the day (and familiar names of present-day streets and cultural institutions). Most of the center of the city had been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1871, and what had been built to replace what had burned was frequently “fast and cheap” construction, into which a rapidly escalating population crammed itself. Conditions for the average worker were horrible, and even with the reversal of the Chicago River (so that sewage and industrial effluent would not end up in the Lake where the drinking water came from) in 1900, there was still highly unsanitary housing for many if not most of the population. The “City Fathers” took a paternalistic interest in this situation, and determined that something seriously needed to be done before the city lost its appeal as an evolving metropolis.

Architect Daniel Burnham had been a key figure in the development of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, creating the fantastic “White City” of that fair. This, and other planning work that Burnham had done, inspired the Commercial Club to develop a plan for Chicago, and worked with Burnham, and his associates, to create “The Plan of Chicago”. It is somewhat telling how little the official government of the city and state were involved with this … as the corruption of the day was, if possible, even worse than it currently is. The Commercial Club and Burnham brought the message and vision directly to the people, and (while keeping the politicians at least nominally “in the loop”) created a demand for the project that could not be ignored.

The full plan was, while being focused on making life better for the “common man”, rather elitist in its particulars. Largely inspired by the planned developments of Paris and Washington, DC, it has a look-and-feel that, to the modern eye, evokes images of Speer's Germania more than anything. It is somewhat ironic that it was likely the First World War that derailed the plan from being implemented as Burnham and his allies envisioned. Most notable is what was intended to be the center of the new city, a HUGE domed structure to be City Hall at the focus of wide radiating avenues. This would have been at Halsted and Congress (with Congress being the main east-west line of the city), right where the current “circle interchange” is!

One element that did get implemented is the bridge that connected Michigan Avenue south of the river with Pine Street north of the river, with the double-decker structure that allowed for deliveries, etc. to keep to the lower levels. Without this Chicago wouldn't have the iconic Michigan Avenue. The general plan for Grant Park was put in place as well, with some of the museums …. although today's Navy Pier was only one of two planned for the lakefront. Interestingly, the Plan lives on in the Chicago Plan Commission, and related organizations, which take an active role in what gets built, torn down, developed, etc. in the city.

Smith's The Plan of Chicago is an interesting history of a particularly key point in Chicago's development and a fascinating look at the men who were dedicated to charting its future. It had lots of maps, illustrations, vintage photos, and plates from the Plan (in b&w), which give you a view of parts of the city long gone. The book is available from the on-line guys at a reasonable discount, putting it under $10 to pick up. If you have an interest in city planning, turn-of-the century business, architecture, or just a fascination with Chicago, you'll be happy to have this on your bookshelf.

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Tags: book review
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