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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 speeded 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.

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 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.”


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.


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.


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.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Chicago Historical Society.