The Man with the Plan
Daniel Burnham and his plan, reconsidered
June 18, 1993
Of the covers I did for the Reader, four stood out, including this 10,000-worder about architect and planner Daniel Burnham. Chicagoans love their hot dogs and Italian beef, but I am particularly fond of roasted sacred cow. Note that it appears here in three parts.
In 1993, Princeton University Press brought out a reproduction of the first edition of Burnham's Plan; not cheap, but gorgeous. In 2007, the University of Chicago Press gave us Carl Smith's excellent short history, The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City.
Some of the books mentioned in this piece can be purchased from the nonprofit Bookshop.org via the links here provided. Part of the profit from each sale goes into a fund to support independent bookstores, and part goes into my empty pocket. You should know that.
I goofed in the original piece, an error I fessed up to in this letter to the editor that ran a couple of weeks later.
The University of Chicago at the turn of the last century stood in a south side that was poor and non-WASP, not poor and nonwhite as I alleged in my piece of June 18 about Daniel Burnham ("The Man With the Plan").
I read in the Trib that the mayor's wife planted a tree at Saint Dan's grave site in Graceland Cemetery. Better they should dig up the old fraud and sell slivers of his bones as relics to finance a decent forestry program for Grant Park.
James Krohe Jr.
July 1, 1993
Gather round, children, and hear the story of Daniel Hudson Burnham, Chicago's original man with a plan. Poet of the "livable city" and Albert Speer's favorite architect. Prophet of the City Beautiful, the Architecture Firm Corporate, and the Lakefront Public. One half of the firm Burnham & Root, which gave Chicago the Rookery, the Monadnock, and the Reliance buildings. Head of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, which commemorated the discovery of the New World by Columbus and marked the discovery of Chicago by everyone else. Author of the 1909 Plan of Chicago, a vision of the city that was almost perfectly false and therefore irresistible to two generations of boosters. Inventor of a Chicago for people who didn't like Chicago. Boss Burnham. Uncle Dan.
Alive and dead, Burnham's preeminence is singular. He was a big man in every way—well over six feet tall, and later in life nearly that in girth. He is perhaps the closest thing Chicago has to a cultural hero who didn't sweat while making his living; his trademark phrase—"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood"—is the city's unofficial motto.
Chicago has a Burnham Park, a Burnham Harbor, a Burnham Library, and two Burnham Centers: his last Loop office building, recently renamed in his honor, and the Chicago Athenaeum's new Daniel H. Burnham Center at 1165 N. Clark. Burnham's name is assumed to spur sales of all kinds of goods in Chicago, from T-shirts to upscale residential developments. The University of Illinois at Chicago will soon publish a walking-tour guide, "Recapturing Burnham's Chicago," on the safe assumption that there are people who wish to.
That his celebrity is largely fraudulent says more about Chicago than about Burnham. He's honored as an architect for buildings he didn't design, as an urban thinker for ideas he borrowed, as a planner for a plan whose important features were never built, as a civic hero for achievements that held Chicago back for decades. That he and his works are so widely misconstrued may be explained by the fact that Chicago persists in seeing him as a planner and not a politician—a sort of senator from the North Shore. More on that later.
The blind approval with which Burnham is too often praised in Chicago is matched by the equally blind disdain with which he's regarded nearly everywhere else. People can't make up their minds about Dan, although the summer of 1993 is a good time to try. Thousands of architects and city planners from the United States and the civilized world will gather in Chicago at a series of conventions largely because of what Burnham thoughtfully provided in the way of tourist knickknacks. While here they will grapple with the Big Questions that remain unanswered since Burnham's day: What is the city? Who is it for? What is the relationship between urban form and culture? Culture and power? Which way to the rest room?
The effectual creative man
Burnham's remarkable posthumous presence suggests something of the living man. The physically imposing Burnham had impeccable manners: he knew how to intimidate without exciting enmity. Historian Ross Miller suggested in American Apocalypse that Burnham, not Frank Lloyd Wright, was the hero of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and the source of her "oddball theories of the effectual creative man."
Whence this paragon? Burnham was a scion of the WASP establishment; the son of a well-to-do businessman, he moved as a boy to Chicago from upstate New York. Like so many Chicago men of business he was a bit of a jock in school and a classroom operator. Not very bookish, he failed entrance exams for both Harvard and Yale despite intensive tutoring. His life was indecisive until the 1870s, when he converted a boyhood talent for drawing into jobs with various Chicago architecture firms. He worked most profitably under the guidance of one Peter Wight, who taught him his craft and, just as significantly, introduced him to his future partner, John Root.
In 1873 the firm of Burnham & Root opened its doors, the beginning of an association that was advantageous for both men. The conventional reading of Burnham and Root's partnership is that Burnham hustled the commissions and Root discharged them, but there is much to suggest that Burnham was no mere dealmeister. He had a deft hand when it came to laying out buildings. More important (as Root's biographer Donald Hoffmann has written), Burnham provided a "stable and sympathetic presence" for the much more talented Root, a man who was willing to work himself to death for the firm--he died at 41 from pneumonia aggravated by exhaustion.
Burnham & Root was a successful commercial architecture firm in every sense. In the 18 years they spent together, Burnham and Root designed $40 million worth of construction. Outside the office Burnham was everywhere, active on charity boards and in professional associations and attending social affairs. By catering to prosperous men of business he became one himself, and the role suited him. Burnham lunched with Armours and Pullmans and Fields, and traveled with the Hutchinsons and Ryersons in Europe on art safaris. He was a trustee of both the Art Institute and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In addition to being powerful his associates were enlightened men by Chicago standards, and the value of their patronage to his commercial success and civic influence cannot be overstated.
Thomas Hines, author of the 1974 biography Burnham of Chicago, describes him as a mover but definitely not a shaker. His was a personality of moderation, compromise, practicality. He was Republican by temperament rather than conviction, a believer in free-market capitalism who was dismayed by its more egregious social effects. Poverty and its ills, one suspects, offended his taste as much as his morals. Hines calls him a mystic of sorts who practiced a very practical kind of Christian ethics. A conservative liberal, a man interested in results, he was the Chicago doer personified, perfectly qualified to be the chief architect to Chicago's regular guys.
The White City
It was natural that the cabal of local businessmen who plotted to have Chicago selected as the site of the 1893 world's fair should select Burnham & Root as consulting architects, charged with supervising the design and construction of all the fair's facilities. Root died in 1891, but Burnham persevered, turning the swamps of the south lakeshore at Jackson Park into the dazzling White City: it was the ideal city in microcosm, a make-believe city that worked, a bourgeois fantasy of what technology and wealth and culture could do to transform the all-too-real city. The make-believe White City was a drawing card for many visitors, who were spared any distressing contact with the real Chicago. A fifty-cent admission fee kept out the riffraff.
The White City offered New World technological prowess wrapped in an Old World package. The bulk of the design commissions had gone to New York architects, who favored the frenchified Renaissance style taught at Paris's Ecole des Beaux Arts. Critic Lewis Mumford scornfully wrote in 1924 that the buildings done for the fair matched the originals in all but originality, that the much-praised aesthetic unity of the buildings grouped around the Court of Honor concealed a lack of ideas. Urbanists of our own generation like Jane Jacobs have likened the Court of Honor to frosted pastries on a tray; Burnham did in fact function rather like a caterer at a huge and garish wedding reception.
The warmed-over classicism displayed at the White City was the antithesis of the muscular, spare commercial architecture then being pioneered by Chicago architects, and critics then and now have mistaken the difference for a message. Robert Bruegmann, a professor of architectural history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, points out, however, that the classicized styles shown off at the fair's Court of Honor were thought appropriate for public buildings in both Chicago and on the East Coast, that if Chicago then had few examples of the style it was because its signature buildings were commercial, that if Burnham & Root had not done many buildings in the classical style it was because, as a new firm specializing in commercial buildings, they hadn't been asked to design many buildings for which classical motifs would have been thought appropriate. Bruegmann points out that both the radically stripped down Reliance Building in the Loop and the Fine Arts Building in the White City (which survives today as the Museum of Science and Industry) came from the drafting table of young designer Charles Atwood.
Historian Ross Miller argues in American Apocalypse that the Romanish frills of the White City were not meant to represent the real city but to distract from it--were meant to soothe a bourgeoisie agitated by the real modernism Burnham and his firm were establishing in the Loop. It seems more likely that Burnham—a man whose gifts were social rather than artistic or intellectual, and who was insecure among men of superior learning—was cravenly cultivating his professional betters, such as New Yorkers Charles McKim and Stanford White.
The fair revealed something of the profound dichotomy within Burnham regarding his work. There is reason to believe that the tall building per se never engaged Burnham the way it did some of his clients. The tall building was an economic necessity in downtown Chicago, not an aesthetic choice, and it is plausible that it was regarded by the city's more polished capitalists as vulgar, even as an expression of bad business manners. The bulk of Burnham's later office buildings are big rather than tall--skyscrapers lying on their sides, like 208 S. LaSalle, decorous, stable, solid like the Establishment members who paid for them.
After 1895, writes Hines, Burnham "no longer felt secure in the Chicago idiom" and sought refuge and reassurance in the accepted. The derivative historicism that characterized Burnham's later years was the result of what Hines calls a failure of creative nerve, for which Burnham compensated with what the biographer calls a "frequently swollen grandeur" of megalomaniac proportions.
Of course swollen grandeur sells like hot dogs at a fair, and the Columbian Exposition was an astonishing success, at least in crass terms. Burnham's preparatory labors had been prodigious, and the result unprecedented—a cultural circus for which he proved a skilled ringmaster. Twelve million people came to gawk, including presidents and kings. The fair turned Burnham into a celebrity.
And if it exposed his limitations as an architect, it revealed his skills as a planner. Burnham arrayed the buildings around the fair site to achieve a remarkable visual unity and practicality. After 1893 Burnham devoted himself increasingly to his new career as urban seer. During the next decade he was commissioned to do plans for Cleveland, San Francisco, Manila, and (most significantly) Washington, D.C.
In those days Chicago's Commercial Club was packed with what one admirer called intelligent and public-spirited citizens "who know how to employ experts to advantage." In 1906 the club commissioned Burnham to draft a plan for the old hometown. In effect he was charged with turning Chicago into—the phrase is not a new one—"a world-class city." The result was the Plan of Chicago. Years in the making, it was unveiled on July 4, 1909, with a maximum of hoo-hah. Aldermen later adopted it as the city's official plan and set up a commission—with more than 300 members, "mobilized" might be a better term—to implement it.
The 1909 Plan is widely reckoned to be the most influential city plan of its type; certainly it was the city plan that had the most influence on Chicago. It was the 1909 Plan that sketched out today's lakefront and Wacker Drive, North Michigan Avenue, Union Station, Navy Pier, and Northerly Island (Meigs Field), to name only the more conspicuous of the landmarks previewed in its pages. Abroad, it stimulated the City Beautiful movement, which inspired cities of pretension for two decades.
The Plan was Burnham's culminating work; he died, in 1916, before much of what he'd laid out could be built. On the day he died the Chicago Symphony, in concert, played the funeral march from Gotterdammerung in tribute. He is buried in Graceland Cemetery, beneath a redundant stone marker: the city is filled with monuments he built to himself.
A Magna Carta for the fun-loving
Burnham had a busy career, even a distinguished one. But little in the facts of his life explains the extraordinary hold his work has on Chicago. Nearly eight decades after his death his opinion about the city still matters. The Metropolitan Planning Council gives a Burnham Award for Excellence in Planning to those who recall, however faintly, his example. Inland Architect devoted a whole issue to Burnham on the 75th anniversary of his death. And when members of the American Planning Association gathered in solemn conclave in Chicago in May, they entertained the topic "If Burnham Came to Schaumburg."
Burnham's ghost is constantly summoned from the grave to endorse this project or that. Typical were the remarks of Robert Wislow, chairman of U.S. Equities Realty, who told a relieved city in 1990 that because of his company's Central Station project, "Daniel Burnham's vision for the South Loop is finally going to be realized."
The blueprint for his vision was the Plan of Chicago, in which Burnham summarized all he believed about art, politics, and city life. It addressed not only the interrelationships of commerce, transportation, and parks within the city but, in a highly original regional approach, those between the city and the surrounding region.
And it came not a moment too soon. In 1906 Chicago was not a city that worked. It was congested, incoherent. Its growth had overrun the city's puny attempts to control it, or at least ameliorate its effects. As a result, neither goods nor people could move easily through its streets; its neighborhoods were dark, dirty, and flimsily built; its public ways were open sewers. Chicago was a kind of money factory—massively profitable but also noisy, ugly, and dangerous.
Burnham proposed to rescue Chicago from its own success. He sought to open up the city to its people. The city that had rewarded economic man by slighting every other aspect of life would make amends with a massive program to build new public spaces in the form of parks and boulevards. The downtown lakefront would be framed by symmetrically arrayed boulevards (Congress and 12th Street, now Roosevelt Road) and formal parks.
Little could be done for already-existing neighborhoods, but decent provision could be made for future ones. In the city's outward regions, existing roads and green space would be linked by two roughly concentric rings of roads and parks (never built), in anticipation of the city's continuing westward expansion; Burnham also argued for platting undeveloped land adjacent to Chicago as the city advanced.
Most crucial to Burnham's, and the city's, reputation was the fact that the Plan confirmed and expanded on the principle of a publicly owned recreational lakefront, which makes the Plan to fun-loving Chicagoans what the Magna Carta is to the freedom-loving English. The lakefront was the one feature that unregulated capitalism had not been able to spoil, and it would become not just an amenity but the recreational and cultural focus of the city. It was proposed to extend an artificial shoreline south from Grant Park (then Lake Park) to Jackson Park, for example, using waste from the city's ongoing construction, at a rate of 22 acres of new land each year. New municipal piers built into the lake, peninsular landfills created off downtown, and a lakeshore pleasure drive were among the features Burnham alluringly laid out.
The Plan also suggested a massive program of physical improvements away from the lake. Businesses and factories and shipping facilities were crowded around the rail yards and river docks in increasingly cost-inefficient chaos. The Plan called for rail lines to be consolidated by abandoning redundant lines; points of congestion were to be eased by separating rail traffic from road traffic. New river bridges would be built and North Michigan Avenue widened. The Chicago River south of 12th Street was to be straightened, and a giant civic complex was to be built at Halsted and Congress, in part to divert people and vehicles from the Loop business center.
The Chicago that Burnham laid out in the pages of the Plan bore more than a passing resemblance to the White City of the 1893 fair. Burnham's fair, Burnham's buildings, and Burnham's city plans are essentially the same creation, worked out on different scales. In each the new was overlaid with the old: the fair buildings consisted of modern structural steel framing covered with plaster to resemble unmodern carved stone; the buildings may have had Greek goddesses on the outside, but inside they had the latest technology, such as electric elevators; his city plans (particularly the one he did for Chicago) offered Beaux Arts public spaces interposed with up-to-date commercial infrastructure.
The city Burnham imagined would be efficient, humane, inspiring. The city's prairie origins suggested a model for some of its new parks, but others focused on Old World urban Edens. Burnham himself looked to Europe for his regenerated City Beautiful, believing the old urban forms would make the new ones bearable. The Plan was the means by which Chicago might obtain in a generation what cities like Paris took 600 years to build: Chicago would not merely improve itself but invent itself. History here was a product, not a process; Chicago would buy its culture the way it bought its wood and its beef, from the places far away where those things grew naturally.
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