Make no little plans

Fresh from the success of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition world’s fair, city leaders in Chicago sought a dramatic revitalization to bring their city into the new century. And they knew just who they wanted to lead the charge.

Daniel Burnham had been the Director of Works for the World’s Fair, but now he was approached by his fellow members of the Commercial Club of Chicago and presented with an even greater assignment.

The task laid before Burnham in 1906 called for nothing less than a complete redesign of the entire city. It was a wholesale reimagining of what a 20th century metropolis could become.

Burnham was just the man to lead such an effort. His work had been shaping Chicago for decades, all the way back to the desperate days following the fire in 1871. As an architect with Carter, Drake and Wight, Burnham’s first projects in the city had been small: mostly re-building single-family houses for wealthy residents who had lost their homes in the fire. But he had a grander vision, and soon he partnered with fellow architect John Wellborn Root to work on taller buildings.

Among these was the Reliance Building at Washington and State, a 14-story structure which was completed in 1895. So eager was Burnham to get started that he began work on the new building before the existing one on site was demolished: he jacked up the floors of the old building and allowed the tenants to remain until their leases expired, while construction on the new building’s foundation proceeded below them.

Burnham’s work was not confined just to Chicago, however. In the early years of the 20th century he also designed landmarks which still stand today in other American cities, including the Flatiron Building in New York, Filene’s Department Store in Boston and the Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, California.

But it was in Chicago that Daniel Burnham would etch his name permanently in the history books.

Daniel Burnham 
“Make no little plans,” he encouraged his team of architects and together with the English-born city planner Edward Bennett they would deliver a visionary plan that was anything but small.

Burnham’s famous admonition was as much motivated by practical politics as it was by grand architectural vision. The simple fact of the matter was that he would not have been able to gain the support he needed had he presented a little, piecemeal plan.

Previous, little plans had not inspired the Commercial Club members who had grown tired of the paucity of “concrete constructive propositions laid before them to appeal to their imagination and hope and to increase their civic pride and loyalty.”

City leaders wanted a “big imaginative plan.” Burnham would deliver just that.

Burnham sought to make Chicago a “Paris on the Prairie,” and embraced the “City Beautiful” movement in vogue among architects and city planners around the turn of the 20th century. The movement called for an improvement of major cities by using architecture to lead to moral and civic uplift for all. It advocated spacious parks open to everyone and a move away from the crumbling tenements that housed so many of America’s urban poor. The parks would manifest themselves in such locales as the Mall in Washington DC and Denver’s Civic Center Park. The changes to urban housing took much longer to materialize.

For three years Burnham, Bennett and their team pondered the project, studied architecture, infrastructure and city design around the world and finally delivered their 164-page report to the Commercial Club in 1909.

The plan looked at Chicago as the hub of a region stretching from Kenosha, Wisconsin, around the lake to Michigan City, Indiana. It laid out six elements: redesign the lakefront, build a highway network, improve the city’s rail system, construct a system of parks, realign city streets for better movement, and develop the city’s academic and governmental buildings into a more cooperative structure. It was an ambitious plan, and one which would be in the construction phase for decades.

Burnham’s plan was put before the city council in the summer of 1909. A few months later, Mayor Fred Busse named the Commercial Club’s vice chairman and a former director of the World’s Fair, Charles H. Wacker, as chairman of a planning commission which would set about implementing its many ideas over the next 17 years.

It’s key aspect, and the one which was eventually constructed most thoroughly and which endures today is the first: redesigning the lakefront. Burnham’s team believed that much of the city’s 29-mile long lakefront could be repurposed to create parks open to all Chicagoans. “Not a foot of its shores should be appropriated to the exclusion of the people,” he wrote.

The parks would be a site for enjoyment and recreation for all, as well as an escape from the tenements. When it was complete, the parks section of the plan would see 25 of the 29 miles made into public lakefront space.

Wacker was an early enthusiast for the plan. He sought to publicize the dynamic redesign of the city as a way to gain the support of the city’s leaders and opinion makers. He went on a city-wide speaking tour and even published a textbook called Wacker’s Manual of the Plan of Chicago. His efforts would bear fruit for the city, and also for his place in history as one of Chicago’s most famous streets – which was constructed as part of the Burnham plan – would bear his name.

The Burnham plan’s designs for revamped city streets arrived just as the nation was taking to the roads. Automobiles were rolling off assembly lines in increasing numbers in the years after the plan was introduced. The need for wider streets became apparent, as did the need for a more logical pattern of streets to facilitate better traffic flow.

Here Burnham’s plan would eventually have mixed success. His highway plan called for a regional approach which extended far outside the city limits, something which city, suburban and state leaders would fight over for decades. As the state of Illinois began making the plans which would eventually evolve into the Illinois highway system, some of the general principles of the Burnham plan are apparent, such as the wheel-and-spoke structure of the major highway system around the city, but other more specific locations and paths for highways were not included in the final design.

Within the city the Burnham Plan’s effect on streets was dramatic and long-lasting. Streets were widened and diagonal streets were added to the city’s grid plan; part of that wheel-and-spoke concept for the highways. The effects of Burnham are still visible today on such thoroughfares as Michigan Avenue. Over the following decades, however, this part of the plan would be drastically altered with the rise of automobile traffic into the city center itself.

Chicago’s rail system was both the source of its rise to prominence and the frustration of its residents in their daily travels. Burnham sought to untangle the jumble of lines running in all directions through the city. Burnham’s plan called for rail lines to share their tracks through Chicago and for merging passenger rail into a smaller number of larger stations, freeing up more land in the loop for commercial development. One such project led to the opening of Union Station in 1925, but other aspects of the plan were not realized.

While the lakefront parks were one of Burnham’s most successful creations, the outlying parks were already in the works by the time of the plan. City and county leaders eventually ended up consolidating the parks idea with the existing plan for what became the Cook County Forest Preserves to set aside 70,000 acres of natural land for all to enjoy.

The sixth and final part of Burnham’s plan is the one which is perhaps most commonly associated with the plan in the public mind, but ironically the one which had the most difficulty becoming a reality: buildings. In part this is because so much of the city’s commercial construction was already underway and was going to proceed whether the Burnham plan had come along or not. While the improvements to infrastructure made much of the construction of large, iconic buildings possible and profitable, many of the buildings themselves were either not part of the plan or were not constructed in accordance with it.

The City of Broad Shoulders with its towering skyscrapers was already well on its way when the plan was presented in 1909 – the first such buildings had been constructed more than two decades earlier. Burnham’s plan for new civic buildings ran into political opposition which proved very difficult to overcome. His idea for a grand city hall building at Congress and Halsted topped by a majestic dome was doomed from the start as city leaders did not wish to move from their central location downtown. When Burnham died in 1912 many elements of the building plan were still very much up in the air.

Taking over from his deceased colleague, Bennett continued to push for Burnham’s vision as a member of the Chicago Plan Commission. Several of Burnham’s planned buildings were constructed, just not always in the location he had intended. His vision of majestic buildings in Grant Park did not come to realization, but the buildings themselves, including the Burnham-designed Field Museum of Natural History would be constructed not far away. The Art Institute of Chicago, which had already been constructed in Grant Park, would name its library for Burnham. Other plans proved too ambitious to be implemented: the Chicago River was never made the equal of the Seine in Paris.

Burnham's Reliance Building in Chicago
For decades, the city of Chicago would seek to implement Burnham’s plan in some fashion. Some aspects stuck closer to the plan, others were modified and some were scrapped altogether. In its final form the plan did not include many elements to directly address the city’s social ills, particularly in easing racial disparities or improving housing for lower income residents.

In the decades that followed, city planners in Chicago would look to Burnham’s vision as they developed other projects: expressways, skyscrapers, stadiums, a second world’s fair in 1933, international airports and much more.

More than a century later, Chicago’s planners continue to make no little plans.