Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City

101. The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City, by Carl Smith

The year 2009 marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago, and, boy, did Chicago celebrate. There were lectures and exhibits and installations. Smith's book, a revision of the interpretive digital essay he wrote for the electronic version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago, is the story of how it all came together.

The city was exploding. In the 20 years before the Chicago Fire, the population grew from 30,000 to ten times that. By the time of the plan's publication, it was two million. It was exploding in other ways as well. The conflict between labor unions and capital often erupted into violence. The urban poor were crowded into dense and unhealthy tenements. And the city was governed by what Smith calls a "profoundly crooked group" in the city council.

But the city was also home to a group of civically engaged businessmen, people like Montgomery Ward, who fought to keep the lakefront "forever open, clear and free". Through private civic organizations, the Commercial Club and the Merchants Club, they determined to create a plan to alter the city's built environment. And the man they hired to create this plan was Daniel Burnham.

Burnham was by no means an unknown. He was one of them. He had been the architect behind the "White City", Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893. He designed their homes and their office buildings. He was joined in the endeavor by Edward H. Bennett.

Much of what we see in Chicago today is the result of this plan. The lakefront and the Museum Campus:
Museum Campus

the Michigan Avenue bridge, that joined the streets on either side of the Chicago River:
The city and the river

and so much more we owe to Burnham and Bennett's work.


  1. Having recently read The Devil and the White City, this looks like a book I'd like to read. Probably a must if I ever get to visit Chicago!

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