Models for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s entry in the Fermi competition, June 14, 1957 Credit: HB-20354-A; Chicago History Museum; Hedrich-Blessing Collection.

Before I came to Chicago, I knew about the Commercial Club’s 1909 Plan of Chicago. I picked up a reprinted edition at the Seattle Public Library and pored over its luminous illustrations by Jules Guérin and magisterial prose by architects Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett promising a greatly improved system of parks and highways, and a grand civic center where all governmental matters would be addressed efficiently and professionally.

Until that moment, my primary lens for understanding Chicago came through seeing The Blues Brothers many, many times with my family. Needless to say, they were vastly different versions of the same place. And The Blues Brothers had Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, John Lee Hooker, and Cab Calloway.

The 1909 Plan of Chicago is silent when it comes to music.

When I arrived in the city 25 years ago to start college, I soon learned about other elaborate plans that were never completed. They fascinated me as I continued to explore and wonder “What if?” Three of these plans that most fascinate me include a grand vision for a civic center in River North, a concrete ribbon to divide Hyde Park from Woodlawn, and a third World’s Fair to be held on the lakefront.

Today a casual stroll through River North reveals a thicket of pricey steak houses, boutique hotels, and an endless parade of fast-casual eateries. Seven decades ago, the area was better known as the Near North neighborhood and it was commonly known for an endless parade of adult entertainments, clip joints, single residency occupancy hotels, and bars set up to fleece visiting conventioneers.

Into this steamy mess of humanity contained within old warehouses and decrepit three- and four-story buildings stepped Arthur Rubloff, Chicago’s most well-known (if not always well-loved) real estate developer. Working with his team, Rubloff developed an 151-acre Fort Dearborn project that included moving the existing civic center complex from the Loop onto the north bank of the Chicago River, along with offering large parcels for new apartment buildings, improved light industrial structures, and a heliport at Wolf Point. The goal of the project was twofold: replace the aging government buildings in the Loop, and revitalize the Near North area by creating modern buildings for retail and other uses.

When the plan was first put forth in 1954, there was a formal announcement and project display hosted at Navy Pier. While Mayor Martin Kennelly expressed enthusiasm for the Fort Dearborn plan, his successor, Mayor Richard J. Daley, offered just boilerplate platitudes. The plan was officially abandoned several years later. Rubloff would go on to work on numerous other projects, most notably the creation of Carl Sandburg Village.

Seven miles south, Hyde Park was facing its own challenges in the early 1950s. The University of Chicago was increasingly concerned about the long-term viability of its campus amid a community that was rapidly changing to include more low-income residents, notably Appalachian whites and African Americans from the south.

Woodlawn was experiencing an even more dramatic racial transition as the community was quickly becoming majority African American. Against this backdrop, the University of Chicago’s preliminary 1955 master plan was issued amid fervent concern among community groups, local activists, and others.

Prepared by the Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, the plan offered a response to increasing “blight” and “neighborhood deterioration” identified by University of Chicago researchers and those working on the long-term plans for Hyde Park’s urban renewal program. It is not surprising that it includes recommendations to create cul-de-sacs for 59th and 60th Streets, effectively curbing traffic into and from Stony Island Avenue.

Along with these not-so-surprising mid-20th-century fixes for urban woes, one also finds a plan for an expressway that would travel down 61st Street from the lakefront. The stated goal was that this concrete ribbon would eventually connect with the federally sponsored freeway that would run a mile west of campus. In Saarinen’s formal plan, the expressway was described as “a way to effectively reunite the south campus to the area north of the Midway.” Offering a bit more honest commentary, a U. of C. administrator commented at a board of trustees meeting that “the area south of 61st Street has gone beyond any hope of rehabilitation and we should seek other options.”

While the expressway along 61st Street and those cul-de-sacs did not come to pass, one only needs to think about the ongoing conversations about the Obama Presidential Center to be reminded that these debates about these big plans are very much with us today.

Stuart Cohen and Anders Nereim, “Project for the 1992 Chicago World’s Fair” (1984)Credit: Oz: Vol. 6

Once upon a time, cities included the world’s fair among their biggest plans and possible accomplishments. Not only would visitors come and spend money in hotels and restaurants, but they would also get to see the latest in scientific, technological, and cultural innovations in one place. Now we have our devices.

But after Chicago’s two successful world’s fairs, it stood to reason that a group of businesspeople might begin to wonder “What about a third?” The spark for this channeling of energy came from the mind of architect Harry Weese, who offered up a speculative drawing in 1977 that envisioned a Ferris wheel and a reimagined festival marketplace for what, at the time, was a rather forlorn Navy Pier.

While only intended as a bit of prospective speculation, the presentation served as the spark to create a World’s Fair committee three years later. From 1980 to 1985, the Chicago’s World Fair Corporation lobbied for an extensive development along Burnham Harbor that would have included a new International Center for the Arts and a high-speed “skytrain.”

Weese’s vision was not the only one offered up during these years. Architect Bertrand Goldberg crafted a series of elaborate drawings in the spring of 1984 that included a floating fair complex south of Navy Pier, along with two elaborate turning basins along the south branch of the Chicago River near Chinatown. In a Chicago Tribune article from December 14, 1984, Goldberg also expressed serious reservations about the ability of the city’s transportation network to move the expected 55 million visitors to and from the proposed fairground site. Ultimately, the effort fizzled out in 1985 and the world’s fair was formally awarded to Seville, Spain.

What is perhaps most striking about this troika of exuberant plans is that they were all coordinated under the auspices of private actors and institutions. Much like the Plan of 1909, these ambitious efforts did not come from the city’s planning department or any other regional planning body. They were all privately led initiatives that forced local politicians, community groups, and others to respond along the way.   v