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The Man with the Plan

Daniel Burnham and his plan, reconsidered


June 18, 1993

Continued from Page 1 . . . 


Practical Utopianism

The building campaigns set forth in the Plan exploited not only a civic mood but a broader historical moment. In the years just before the Plan's publication, radical intellectuals of various stripes, populist farmers, Grangers, and Christian socialists had tried one experiment after another in what critic Michael Sorkin calls "practical utopianism." The bacillus of Progress had even infected the businessman: a developer asked Frederick Law Olmsted to design a model suburb (Riverside, opened in 1869), and George Pullman built his model factory town in Pullman in the 1880s.


In turn-of-the-century Chicago the better sort took to drawing up plans the way they might sit on a church board, and many of their ideas wound up in Burnham's Plan. In the ten years before 1903 a graphic artist named James F. Gookins compiled a quite creditable plan to improve the city's street system that may have influenced Burnham. The scheme for the downtown lakefront in the Plan borrowed from Chicago architect Normand Patton and plans put forward by the Chicago Municipal Improvement League. The lakefront parks and the scheme for the exurban forest preserve were largely in place before the Plan was published (although the Cook County Forest Preserve District wasn't formally established until later). Green-belt parks had been proposed by Jens Jensen and others in a 1904 report of the Special Park Commission. Various plans for lakeshore drives had been proposed since the 1850s, and Burnham himself credited businessman James Wellsworth with the idea of linking (today's) Grant Park and Jackson Park with a lakeshore parkway. The plan to relocate passenger rail facilities away from the Loop owed to a 1904 proposal by Commercial Club member Frederick Delano. And the publication of the Plan did not still the pens of the improvers: in 1916 and in 1919 the City Club held a competition for new designs for neighborhood centers in response to the problems of the city's often-squalid residential districts.


Clearly Burnham was merely the brightest light in a constellation of improvers. A remarkable number of Chicago's business elites came, like Burnham, from upstate New York—Philip Armour, Marshall Field, Dwight Moody, Potter Palmer, George Pullman. As recalled by historian James Gilbert, upstate New York was the scene of the so-called great awakening in the 1830s, when Christian revivalism rolled over the countryside like a summer storm. Burnham's family, for example, were Swedenborgians (followers of an 18th-century Swedish mystic), and Burnham himself had been schooled briefly in a Swedenborgian academy.


The result was an evangelical middle class that combined materialism and an impulse toward good works. It was a generation that expressed itself in what one critic has called the "transcendent materialism" of the skyscraper: worldly values were pursued with a devoutness that made them almost pure. Only a generation so imbued could produce both the grasping material culture of Chicago and a civic preoccupation with that culture's social and moral implications.


Gilbert describes these agitated Protestants as particularly attuned to millennial predictions, and consequently to the consuming need to perfect society before the Final Coming. "Evangelicalism and millennialism," he writes, "were thus a crucial background for capitalist utopian thinking until well into the 1890s." Christian duty energized the do-gooder's daydreaming, and the Plan comprehensively expressed this faith in the perfectibility of institutions. It was perhaps the last time God was on the side of Chicago reformers.

Architecture as theater

The 1893 fair and the Plan concentrated on both the monumental and the superficial and exploited architecture as a symbol of power. In doing so, they also revealed an almost complete lack of interest in what later was accepted as the wider social purposes of city planning.


A sampling of the literature reveals that the world outside Chicago holds Burnhamesque plans in less high regard than we do. In Sticks and Stones, published in 1924 and revised in 1955, Lewis Mumford complained that the City Beautiful showed no concern for the neighborhood—the city's integral unit—or for family housing, among other failings. In 1990, planning historian Peter Hall wrote in Cities of Tomorrow, "This is planning for display, architecture as theater, design intended to impress." As Hall summarized it, beauty far outweighed function in Burnham's estimation, and health hardly figured into his calculations at all. In her 1987 essay, "Paris by the Lake," Joan Draper labeled it an "architect's plan" because of its focus on the visual. Planning historian Mel Scott called the Plan "patently grandiose and unrealistic." Travel writer Jan Morris described Burnham's vision for the city as "inconceivably monumental" and guessed that Hitler would have loved it.


The complaints about the scale of Burnham's imaginings are a little unfair. The city that Burnham envisioned was no more grand, compared to the actual Chicago of 1909, than the Chicago of 1909 was compared to the Chicago of the 1850s. Burnham's expectation—a reasonable one given the city's growth in the previous 20 years—was that Chicago would within 50 years be the biggest city in the world.


Given the kind of growth then expected, in 1909 the Burnhamian lakefront would not have seemed outlandishly large. History eventually restrained the growth of the city (Morris was not the first visitor to observe that Chicago seems too big for itself) but not of the lakefront. As Boston urbanologist Kevin Lynch, the Columbus of urban space, reported in 1968, the scale of the lakefront is "perhaps unrelievedly large and coarse," and there is too much open space interposed between city and water, as at the Loop.

Burnham's projection of Chicago's growth is only one of the ways his Plan assumed that the future would look pretty much like the recent past. It provided gloriously for passenger steamships on the lake, and its massive boulevards were designed for horse carriages--a grave error in a document published at the start of the automobile age. Hall describes the Plan as centrocentric, meaning it assumed that all the city's business would be done downtown; but retailing and services had already started to follow the streetcars and automobiles into the neighborhoods and suburbs. Even in 1909, writes James Gilbert in his study of utopian movements in 1890s Chicago, Perfect Cities, "the city was a place of many subordinate centers, not just the grand apex of skyscrapers and institutions of high culture."


Burnham's attention to problems at the regional level is still much praised as original, but one needs to be very careful in describing his contributions in that area. A skeptical Daniel Bluestone, the Columbia University historian who wrote Constructing Chicago, reminds us that regionalism was anything but a new idea to Chicago; the Illinois & Michigan Canal acknowledged the links between the city and the larger region in the 1840s. In any event, the Plan's regional aspects seem tacked on to widen its political appeal, as a sop to the practical-minded; Bluestone states flatly that those aspects were "largely peripheral to its central monumental and aesthetic ideals."


Burnham's plan for Chicago was in short surprisingly backward-looking. Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, in her history of cultural philanthropy in Chicago, Culture and the City, complained that the Plan froze in 1909 the attitudes of the 1890s regarding the reforming role of the arts, ignoring the evolution that had occurred during more than a decade of progressive social thought. Even as sympathetic a chronicler as Joan Draper conceded that the Plan was backward for its time. It shows no influence, for example, of the Garden City movement, which argued that the cure for the big city was to build lots of new cities in the countryside. Essentially the Plan called for redesigning the physical environment of the city (planning's past) while paying virtually no attention to the processes by which the development that shapes that environment might be controlled (planning's future).


The Plan's anachronism should not have been a surprise: its model dated from the 1860s. As Napoleon III's agent, Baron Haussmann had then superintended the remaking of Paris. It was Haussmann who gave the French capital the boulevards, landmark squares, and parks that have entranced subsequent generations of visitors who like their cities orderly, coherent, and dull. Had Haussmann's Paris been a book, Burnham would have been hauled into court as a plagiarist. His imagined Chicago speaks tourist French, but it is plainly Haussmann's Paris nonetheless.


While Burnham's Plan was the gaudiest and grandest of the plans being devised for Chicago, it was hardly the only one, and arguably not the best one. In 1920 Jens Jensen published an exhaustive study of the possibilities of expanding the system of parks of the West Park Commission, one of the forerunners of today's Chicago Park District. Unlike the geometrical array of Burnhamian boulevards, Jensen's pleasure drives would have hugged the topography of the west side's prehistoric beaches. Jensen called for a boating canal to connect the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers, and for municipal kitchen gardens where local residents might raise their own food and sell it. Jensen's plan thus would have extended to the city's working people the amenities and variety that the middle class were by then fleeing to the suburbs to find.


Jensen's criticisms of the 1909 Plan ring true today. As is explained by Robert Grese in his new book, Jens Jensen, Jensen complained in 1911 that housing, not the circulation of goods, ought to have been Burnham's point, arguing, "You cannot have a good and beautiful city with ideal conditions on its fringe and rotten conditions in its interior." Jensen offered a city oriented to neighborhoods rather than to a ceremonial lakefront, with factories and schools designed to that scale rather than to Burnham's regional scale.

Jensen is not remembered as a planner the way Burnham is, but there is no question which man produced the more humane and sophisticated vision of Chicago, though the Danish Jensen's northern European notions of community would have been inappropriate in a city as ethnically diverse as Chicago.

Perfectly attainable visions

So universally is Chicago identified with the physical inheritance of the Plan, and so relentless has been the city's pride in building it, that it comes as a surprise to learn how little of what Burnham proposed was actually built. The south lakefront never quite attained its promised beauty. (Like so much else, Carl Condit complained, "This simple and perfectly attainable vision proved beyond the reach of Chicago.") Only one pier and one peninsula were built—Navy Pier and Northerly Island, created for a second world's fair in 1933. Only one of Burnham's systems of diagonal thoroughfares—Ogden Avenue--was ever built. Certain road projects, such as the widening of Roosevelt Road (then 12th Street) proved to be dead ends because related projects—in the case of 12th Street, rail relocations and the construction of a lakefront terminus—were not completed. Some of what was built specifically in response to the Plan, such as Wacker Drive, was not built where or the way Burnham proposed.


Transforming the place from a working city into a postcard setting would have taxed even a city more eager to prove itself than Chicago. The Depression was an obstacle, as were the lawyers of the rich. For example, in the Plan Burnham envisioned a cultural complex in what would become Grant Park, centered around a new Field Museum that would sit at the lakefront terminus of the old Congress Street. It was an old idea, and not inappropriate given the park's formal character and its scale. That complex was not built, largely because of legal objections raised by Michigan Avenue property owners eager that their expensive views not be compromised.


Arguably the Plan failed more in what it allowed to be built than in what it failed to build--the anarchists of Chicago's golden age did not tear things down, they put things up. After the Great Fire, speculative builders took over the Loop, pushing up building heights, crowding the streets, shadowing the sidewalks—stop me if this sounds familiar—and filling the air with noxious fumes. To many of the established elite, who had the good manners to make their fortunes in land or lumber, these pushy capitalists collecting rent had upset the social order of the city, holding sway over such forces as the church and the state, which had helped shape older cities.


Burnham proposed to reorder the symbolic cityscape. His aim was not aesthetic but moral: to assert Culture and all it stood for over the influence of unbridled Commerce and all it stood for. Just as his office buildings' pseudoclassical shapes were meant to ennoble technology and commerce, so the pseudoclassical civic centers and promenades would ennoble the commercial city. Beauty, order (the term was synonymous with justice in the argot of the privileged), and decency would prevail over the physical and moral ugliness that the new industrial city spawned like rats. But Burnham's civic and cultural centers were to be segregated from the rest of the city, so that Business wouldn't corrupt Beauty.


In short, a plan that was developed by a businessman for businessmen for business purposes was in important ways antibusiness, or at least anti- the kind of business that presumed to exact private profit at the price of the public realm over which the elites were self-appointed guardians. Burnham tried to ennoble the products of speculative overbuilding by dressing it up with columns and carriageways, when a really useful city plan would have proposed ways of restraining speculation and overbuilding. The "princely powers of control" (as Mumford called them) that enforced City Beautiful-type plans in Europe did not exist in the anarchic U.S. big city. Burnham and his colleagues assumed that cities did not have the legal power to control land use apart from the formal taking of the land itself.


The Plan imposed some order on the public realm, but still the location of factories, the routes of (privately owned) rail and trolley lines, and the subdivision of land for houses all proceeded with minimal attention to their interrelation, Plan or no. Burnham's civic center at Halsted and Congress was to announce the reordering of Chicago civic values by asserting government's presence far above that of surrounding commercial buildings; ironic then that what Bluestone calls "the keystone of the plan's sentimental and conceptual framework" should today stand in the long shadow of the Sears Tower, just a few blocks to the east—the ultimate expression of Commerce's power.

The City Defensible

In Perfect Cities, James Gilbert notes astutely how the White City's artificial urbanity stood in vivid opposition to the disordering forces of immigrants, the working classes, and commercialized popular culture. And it's easy to forget how embattled Chicago's propertied classes must have felt at the turn of the century. There had been bitter and bloody strikes at the Pullman works in 1882, '84, and '85; the Haymarket riot happened in 1886. Depression hit in 1893; 16 percent of the Illinois work force was out on strike by 1894; and strikes at eight coal mines that year had to be quelled by state militia. The memory of mobs of strikers paralyzing the movement of troops through the city by rail must have caused more than one person to look favorably on the wide, straight boulevards laid out in the Plan 15 years later.


Burnham & Root in 1889 had designed an armory for the state militia's First Regiment: the firm was charged by the authorities to build an urban redoubt against riots and other civil disturbance. This they did magnificently, borrowing plans from a 14th-century French fortress complete with rifle slots and parapets and sets for Gatling guns, which would enable defenders to sweep both 16th Street and Michigan Avenue with bullets. The building must have been a comforting presence in a neighborhood that was then home to most of the city's richest families.


Baron Haussmann had carved wide boulevards out of the cluttered quarters of Paris, which had been the scene of worker uprisings in 1830 and again in 1848. Haussmann has long been accused of designing those thoroughfares expressly to give troops a clear field of fire, but that is likely a canard put about by later leftist critics. Like Burnham's proposed arterials, those boulevards also sped up commercial traffic, opened the city to light, and linked what today's poetic planners call "transit nodes."

The fact remains that any street improvement that speeds the movement of goods also speeds the movement of troops, and that wide boulevards are harder to barricade than narrow ones. Whatever Haussmann's priorities, his Paris ended up being not only the City Beautiful but the City Defensible.


These realities cannot have been lost on Burnham. The idea that the widened boulevards of his dreamed-of Chicago were meant for some military purpose is not sustained in any of the standard accounts, but his Haussmann-esque street layouts must have been treasured not only for their visual coherence but for the way they marked (if only subliminally) an authoritarian hand on the city.


There were other reasons why Burnham found his inspiration for the new American republican city in Europe's old imperial ones. Chicago was the capital of its own economic empire. William Cronon, reviewing in Nature's Metropolis the booster literature of Burnham's day, remarked upon the popularity of the Chicago-as-empire-of-the-west metaphor. For a while such language was more than mere boasting, because Chicago had a monopoly on the beef and grain trades: the west paid tribute to Chicago in the 19th century much as Gaul had paid tribute to Rome.


Where we see displays of power Burnham was inclined to see civilization, or perhaps he equated the two. Thomas Hines notes that in 1901 in Rome, which Burnham saw as the model for the Washington, D.C., plan then percolating in his brain, he marched about intoxicated by the imperial ambience, spouting Latin to his companions.

We may judge the content of Burnham's ideas by the people who later took them up. The City Beautiful aesthetic that Burnham's 1909 Plan did so much to inspire was adopted by the British raj, which used it to express imperial dominance and racial exclusiveness; later, Mussolini and Hitler would devise similar plans to glorify the state. Historian Ross Miller likens the Chicago imagined in the Plan to Saint Petersburg, another city built on the imperial model but some two centuries earlier.


Sympathetic biographers have been troubled by the apparent contradiction between Burnham's imperial chest beating and his apparently progressive social views. In fact the progressive social reformism of Burnham's class was simply bourgeois American imperialism applied to the unwashed in the big city's third world. Because the new commercial empire was not one of arms but of trade, Chicago's empire would have no subjects, only citizens. And the only way for the new physical order to be established without force of arms was for the social order to be reformed as well. A well-made plan would inspire compliance and loyalty as an antigen against anarchism. In the Plan itself and in various public pronouncements its authors made plain that the purpose of good planning was the inculcation of "good citizenship," by which was meant a commitment to bourgeois civic values.


Instead of improving the worker's situation, the solution was to improve him. Sociologists today read some of these early progressive nostrums with the same mixture of amazement and mirth with which biologists read Creation myths. The way to cure a villain was to expose him to art; the way to cure a slum was to cut avenues through it and open it to the air. The distance between the concerned citizen and the crank was shorter than it is today; in a passage deleted from the final draft of the Plan Burnham insisted that children schooled in sunlit schoolrooms "have some percentage of better health and better moral tone" than those tutored in north-facing rooms.


Similarly, City Beautiful plans may look to us like so many stage sets, but their builders hoped they would occasion real social transformations. Architecture was not merely a matter of shaping space but of conveying messages, and their ultimate aim was to shape behavior. To Burnham, his plans were a form of rhetoric capable of inspiring belief in the larger social body and one's duty to it.


"Inspire" may be rather too nice a word; Gilbert uses such expressions as "predominate," "overwhelm," and "convince" to describe the rhetorical style of the 1893 fair. The White City architects had adorned it with the symbols of European power as elaborated by the church and princes. That language would have been familiar to the least lettered of the city's new European immigrants, and it was appropriated verbatim in Burnham's city plans later.

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John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

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The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

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Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

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Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

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Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
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Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

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Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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