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The Man with the Plan

Daniel Burnham and his plan, reconsidered


June 18, 1993

Continued from Page 2 . . .


Burnham's faith in the transforming power of architecture may have been naive, but it was sincere enough. If muckrakers like Upton Sinclair believed that people in democracies would demand reform if they only knew the facts, Burnham and his set believed that people would reform themselves if only given the model. The fair seemed to validate that assumption; the crowds of working-class families dressed in cheap suits who toured the White City were deferential and obedient, as if inspired by beauty to a more comely comportment.


Even Hines concedes that Burnham gave people parks, however, when what they needed were decent wages and working conditions, which were under the control of the same capitalists who applauded Burnham lustily at Commercial Club luncheons. Likewise, the Plan seldom directly addressed the issues of the slums, save for one reference to housing in which Burnham admitted the possibility of public subsidy as the solution to obtaining low-cost housing. That passage is quoted both by Burnham's detractors--because what he said about housing was so innocuous—and by his defenders, because he said anything at all.


Architectural historian Kristen Schaffer argues that the few remarks on social matters in the published Plan are only the tip of the iceberg, the rest of which is concealed in Burnham's discarded drafts, which Schaffer wisely thought to consult. In that unpublished version he outlined not only a physical transformation but what Schaffer calls a "radical redefinition" of the city's responsibilities to its less fortunate citizens. He offered detailed prescriptions for public utilities (advocating privatization, under close government supervision), day care, public rest rooms, hospitals, schoolhouses—he even advised public scrutiny as a deterrent to police brutality. These are issues dealt with only glancingly, if at all, in the Plan's final version.


Apparently these suggestions were considered impolitic by the project's sponsors and removed, consistent with the aims of its businessmen-sponsors. Schaffer asserts that Burnham's original thought differs so vitally from the published version that he and his Plan would hold a very different place in the history of planning today had the draft been published. "The Plan of Chicago as published is not the whole of the Burnham plan," she concludes; it became a plea for convenience and beauty rather than for social idealism.

Burnham enjoys a reputation as a people's champion despite the thrust of the published Plan. That reputation derives almost entirely from his advocacy of a public recreational lakefront. This is a nice irony, for scholars like Schaffer have long questioned to what extent his stand might have been political, calculated to broaden the plan's popular appeal. Schaffer has found three speeches Burnham made on the subject of the lakefront between the 1893 fair and the start of work on the Plan; in two (to business audiences) he proposed the sale of residential lots along the new south lakeshore, while in the last (to a more general audience) he did not. Schaffer believes that Burnham may have been talked out of the private-lakeshore idea by Ferd Peck, a builder, opera lover, and philanthropist who brought to discussions of the lakefront the kind of social consciousness Burnham seems to have lacked.

The politics of expiation

The consensus of experts is that the Plan was intellectually passe, socially retarded, and aesthetically shallow. How then to explain its success, both at the time and posthumously, as an inspiration? Partly because it was intellectually passe, socially retarded, and aesthetically shallow, of course—the yobs of any age are always susceptible to the presumptions, however meretricious, of their betters.


Also, the Plan offered something to each power group: evidence of Burnham's political acumen pervades the document. Burnham had few peers in fashioning winning coalitions—his plan even offered something to the workers. A plan drawn up by businessmen to improve Chicago as a place to do business was going to be a hard sell to working people in turn-of-the-century Chicago. To them "business" meant sweatshops, bullying foremen, strike-breaking thugs, and slave wages. While the Plan did nothing to reduce Business's actual authority over the lives of the working class, it did diminish Business symbolically by elevating the status of the State, using architectural motifs largely borrowed from the princes and churches of old Europe.


Moreover the Plan was superbly packaged physically. Printed like a fine art book, it was illustrated with watercolors by the French-trained Jules Guerin and sold for the then-huge sum of $25. It's hard to imagine a planning document today so appealing that it would be reprinted by commercial publishers as a sort of coffee-table book not once but twice—the Plan was reprinted in 1970 and will be again this year, by the Princeton Architectural Press.

It would be a mistake, however, to underestimate how much of the Plan's success is owing to the fact that it was Burnham's plan. Peter Hall describes him as less the creator of the City Beautiful movement than its prophet. "Salesman" might be an even more apt description; writes Hall, "Burnham, who certainly understood the Chicago ethos only too well . . . knew how to make a sales pitch when he had to."


Including for himself. Frank Lloyd Wright—who was at odds with Burnham on virtually every issue and thus can be expected not to be generous—once complained that Burnham was a "dictator" who stole ideas from more creative men. Hoffmann likewise has accused Burnham of accepting credit for certain decisions during construction of the 1893 fair that he didn't always deserve. Even his trademark phrase, "Make no little plans," was apparently written for him by an associate.


Certainly the Plan was not the result of Burnham's individual heroic effort--it was a collaboration involving many talented people. Chief among them were artist Guerin, editor Charles Moore, and Burnham's assistant Edward Bennett, a young architect in the firm who had been schooled in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Committees on boulevards, rail terminals, and interurban services drawn up by the Commercial Club added ideas, and hundreds of meetings were held with public and private entities during the Plan's drafting—meetings intended to smooth political acceptance to be sure, but also a way to hear public feedback. And Burnham drew on a variety of proposals already on the table for the improvement of the city's transportation, parks, and other systems.

The fact that the plan is known almost universally as "the Burnham plan" is an example of celebrity corrupting history. But Burnham was a savvy marketer of ideas, and perhaps he concluded that "Burnham" had become by then a brand name you could trust when it came to city recipes.


The Plan also appealed to powerful subconscious yearnings. The kind of ruthless revision of historical realities Burnham proposed is often attractive to Americans, who are forever looking to start with a clean slate in the civic arena as well as in their personal lives.

For whatever reasons, Chicagoans bought into Burnham's dream: successive referenda in the teens and 20s authorized the sale of some $300 million in bonds to build Burnham's Chicago. These building campaigns deftly exploited a civic mood—the enthusiasm for building a new Chicago was proportional to the anxiety people felt about the old one. Building Burnham's Chicago was in many ways an act of expiation, a way for Chicago to redeem itself from its own greed, dirt, and cruelty. A sign in 1919 urging voters to authorize bond sales to pay for Wacker Drive and the Michigan Avenue bridge read, "Don't give your town a black eye." 

Getting right with Burnham

Englishman Hall notes that it is too easy to deride Burnham, and that "plenty of critics have had a field day" at his expense. But if it's so easy, we have to ask why more Chicagoans haven't done it. For one thing, from the start the city's ability to make Burnham's dream real was seen as a public test of the much-touted "I can" spirit. Boosters tend to cite the Plan for all manner of projects, running up the score for Culture in its ongoing competition with Backwardness. In fact some of what's in the Plan would have been built in some form anyway because of commercial pressures (North Michigan Avenue is a good example). Likewise the major roads went where roads inevitably go, as determined by geographic factors.

Of course Burnham's substantial local reputation is partly derived from things he didn't do. It was not Burnham who recommended that Grant Park remain a park; in fact he argued for constructing several large buildings there. While the Plan did provide a rationale for the public recreational lakefront, it did not provide the lakefront any legal protection. A 1969 summary from the Department of Development and Planning credits the Plan for the siting of the present-day Burnham Park museum complex, though Burnham called for such institutions to be built in Grant Park.

There are ironies piled on ironies here. For the museum complex Burnham had proposed an altogether more sensible arrangement to the north: today's Burnham Park museum complex offers none of the convenience or coherence of Burnham's original plan. Bluestone has complained of "the rather informal relations of the buildings to each other" at the current complex, "and the peripheral, asymmetrical location of the entire group in relation to the downtown."

The eagerness to get right with Burnham has tempted some Chicagoans to claim that anything built where Burnham said "Build!" is a fulfillment of the Plan. Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade's Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis, the standard one-volume history of the city's development, describes the Circle interchange at the site of Burnham's proposed civic center among the parts of the Plan that were implemented; but surely an expressway interchange on the site of his own civic center would have struck Burnham as something like sacrilege.


More recently Reuben Hedlund, current chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission, wrote the Tribune to praise the paper's support for a proposed 1,500-seat performing-arts theater on Navy Pier. In Hedlund's view the new theater together with the Burnham Park museum complex and Lyric Opera would constitute a "golden triangle" of culture in Chicago that would "fulfill even the wildest dreams of Daniel Burnham."

Burnham may have envisioned such a golden triangle in his wildest dreams, but he never described it in the Plan. In fact even a casual reading of Burnham's work after 1892 suggests that he would have found everything about the "golden triangle" offensive, from the mix of high and low cultures on the pier to the physically disparate settings.

Imperial pretensions

Planning as both a profession and a social movement had passed Burnham by even as the Plan was being printed. The social movement soon came to look naive, and gradually planners moved away from physical design and toward policy, worrying less about how the city looked than how it worked.

But Burnham's large shadow has kept Chicago planning in the dark for decades. There is on display (until July 8) at the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts an exhibition, "A Minor Urbanism for a Second City," that's the result of a search by students and staff at local architecture schools, looking for a basis for a new urbanism after what its organizers call "the failure of Burnham's grand design." That failure, they say, has led to an increasing frustration with the impossibility of grand planning strategies, the impossibility of planning without them, and the impossibility of not planning at all.

Because Chicago had a Plan, for years its elected officials concluded they could afford to forgo real planning. Perhaps more pernicious, Burnham's admonition to make no little plans encouraged Chicago to dismiss little plans altogether. The Plan also encouraged ornamentalism as a standard—what Mumford contemptuously called "the City Beautiful as a sort of municipal cosmetic." The present mayor's affection for street trees and tidy newsstands is the City Beautiful aesthetic shorn of its monumental scale: the City Beautiful become mere good taste. Even the Tribune, which still quotes Burnham as an authority roughly once a week, complained in a 1991 editorial that in past city plans "blind faith in Burnham's dictum sometimes wrought grandiosely impractical projects, led to the destruction of vital communities and buildings, and left gaping holes in a once tightly woven urban fabric."

Burnham's influence has been more positive in the realm of physical planning, but even here his legacy is mixed. Like later urban renewalists, Burnham improved the city for the People at the expense of people; thousands of working-class families were evicted to widen 12th Street, which as Roosevelt Road became a boulevard to nowhere. And the one feature of Chicago that was like Paris—the South Water Street fruit and meat market—was torn down in the 1920s to make way for Wacker Drive (the only segment of Burnham's double-decker river boulevards to be built). Historian David Lowe likened the South Water Street market to Les Halles in Paris, and Condit in the 1970s found it a "colorful, lively, and unbelievably chaotic institution."

In The Conscience of the Eye, sociologist Richard Sennett remarks that Burnham didn't succeed in rebuilding Chicago but that he did reorient it toward the lake. What was meant to provide people with a way to escape into nature, however, became a way to escape from the city. And as the city's edge became the focus of development, he argues, the area behind it—where most of its people live, work, and play—is inevitably rendered of less and less value.

Burnham's impact on site planning and design has been happier: the Neo-City Beautiful touches that grace the river walk along Cityfront Center are only the newest of Burnham's fingerprints here. His example has inspired any number of local architect-planners to busily channel for the dead master; Harry Weese's various proposals to amend the lakefront actually outdo Burnham in boldness and coherence, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architect Kim Goluska's site plan for the massive Canary Wharf redevelopment in London is the White City all over again.

Burnham also proved to be the great prophet of Chicago tourism, establishing and sanctifying the lakefront as an attraction. And he showed a prescient grasp of the importance a city's "quality of life" plays in corporate location decisions, which help determine a city's economic vigor, and of the ways that a Burnhamian downtown would flatter a business's choice of the Loop as an office site.

Such achievements explain the durability of Burnham's ideas among subsequent generations of civic-minded businessmen. In 1973 the city drew up a lakefront plan that in effect would finish the Burnham lakefront; in 1974 a plan for river-edge development proposed promenades and a river-mouth park; and a 1973 "Chicago 21" plan for the central area foresaw such South Loop housing projects as Dearborn Park, which was built on abandoned (rather than relocated, as Burnham had proposed) rail trackage. In the '80s Chicago literally tried to bring the days of the White City back: a coalition of powerful downtown business interests lobbied to get the city named as the site of the 1992 world's fair. Alas, the organizers had no Burnham to coordinate and cajole on their behalf.

Chicago's imperial pretensions have long since collapsed--rather than demand tribute from the hinterland, the city now has to beg from it--but the imperial city survives in the imperial downtown. Chicago's downtown interests stand today in the same relation to the rest of the city that the city stood to the midwest in the late 19th century. In the mid-1980s the Chicago Central Area Committee (then dominated by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the architecture firm that at that time most closely resembled Burnham & Root in size and structure) proposed not merely to finish Burnham's plans for downtown but to expand on them. Their wish list included a canal along 18th Street connecting the lake and the river, riverbank housing, and a new performing-arts center; Burnham's Paris-on-the-lake was to be realized by construction of an Eiffel Tower-like monument in the lake off Grant Park.

What's missing from the new City Beautiful is the pretense of social improvement: it's become merely an architectural program, meant to improve property values rather than citizenship, embraced by developers eager to reestablish Chicago's credentials as a headquarters city to rival Phoenix, Dallas, and Columbus. (One can't help wondering whether the people today's corporate giants are trying to persuade to stay in Chicago are themselves.) Meanwhile the bourgeoisie have given up their hope of social transformation through planning and architecture and are willing to settle for segregation.

Burnham and his followers slathered a stucco of North Shore values atop Chicago's rough exterior. Hall likened Burnham's lakefront to a Potemkin village, in which facades of wealth along giant highways concealed slums. Simone de Beauvoir once wrote that her first trip to the lakefront reminded her of the Cote d'Azur and made Chicago look "huge, wealthy, and gay." "There was nothing to remind one," she wrote, "of the squalor with its human wreckage" that she saw on the streets that are invisible from the lakefront.

The city's equivocations, its courting of the good opinion of its betters, have quieted its rowdiness and its trademark vulgarity. But Chicago never grew up to become the great city that Burnham imagined, only a better-behaved one—a wimp.

Boss Burnham

For decades Burnham has been credited with the desire to improve Chicago, but in fact he wanted to destroy it. Burnham's generation of Chicago elites were shaped by their common experience--confronting the confusion and chaos of the new American city—in much the same way other generations were shaped by the experience of war or depression. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Burnham hated the American city of the late 19th century, of which Chicago was perhaps the most spectacularly awful version; the author of the Plan of Chicago moved to Evanston in the 1880s, complaining that he could not bear to have his children run in Chicago streets.

We can see glimpses of Burnham's imagined Chicago in two places that are cherished—or damned, depending on one's politics--because they are not representative of the larger city. One is the University of Chicago's neo-Gothic quadrangles—a passable rendition of the White City's Court of Honor, which also was an enclave in a largely poor and nonwhite south side. The other is North Michigan Avenue. The carriages on today's avenue may carry tourists, but in other essential ways it functions as a Burnhamian public space. "The daily parade of the powerful becomes one of the principal dramas of the city," Mumford wrote in The City in History. "A vicarious life of dash and glitter and expense is thus offered . . . to the retired merchant out for a stroll, to the fashionable housewife, shopping for bargains and novelties, to the idle mob of hangers-on in all degrees of shabby gentility and downright misery." He was describing imperial Rome, but no doubt Burnham would have found Mumford's comparison with American cities flattering.


Every great man has his time, and sometimes has his time again. It looked as though Burnham's time had returned in the 1980s. The cause of the city's social malaise had changed: in Burnham's era it was a private sector whose narrow self-interest was subversive of culture, while in the 1980s it was a public sector whose inefficiencies and incompetence were likewise threatening the public weal. Still, as had been true in the 1890s, the city was host to a resurgent private sector and a mostly white middle class that had been dispossessed politically and was struggling with a burgeoning population of poor people, perceived as having alien values, for control of the city center.

Burnham's fight to make Chicago safe for the upper middle class was a political campaign, but it was waged on behalf of class rather than party. Burnham's constituents were the bourgeoisie, anxious both for the city's reputation (and thus their own) and for cultural hegemony. The flight of the elites to the suburbs was well under way by the 1890s. "People flock to those cities where conditions are good," Burnham explained to his colleagues once, "where means of recreation abound, and where there are attractions for the senses and the intellect."


Jan Morris astutely saw that today's Loop and lakefront reverse the usual relationship of city and suburb; Chicago's downtown is an extension of the North Shore, with its culture of niceness, constraint, and wash-and-wear sophistication. And it was in Burnham's day that the campaign to make the city safe for the North Shore got under way—indeed, he generaled the effort.


The Plan was a political platform, a means by which businessmen might seize control and accomplish what City Hall had so signally failed to do: advance the public good. Burnham's Plan is best understood not as part of the city's architectural history but as part of its political history, along with contemporaneous campaigns by business groups to reform the city's charter and control the schools.


City planning may have been what Burnham did, in short, but politician is what he was. Burnham once said that he never had anything to do with politics, but that is true in only the narrowest sense. He gave money to the Republican Party throughout his life, and in 1870, during a youthful sojourn in Nevada, he even ran unsuccessfully for the state senate as a Democrat. In his latter years, however, friendships with such presidents as Teddy Roosevelt were more personal than ideological; the political passions of the mature Burnham were civic rather than partisan.


Comparing Burnham to other architects and planners thus confuses his role and his character. If Burnham has a match in the recent past, it's the late Richard J. Daley. Both strove to make the city a safe place to do business, both ceded decision making on the larger strokes of urban development to businessmen, both kept at bay the encroachments of an immigrant population that was politically and culturally at odds with the ruling bourgeoisie. But Daley's Chicago of fond memory worked only for a while, and Burnham's Chicago will be perfect forever.  ●

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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

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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.

John Hoffman

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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Journal of the Illinois

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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:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


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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