The New Yorker
Toddlin’ Town: Daniel Burnham’s great Chicago Plan turns one hundred.
Burnham was famous for the dictum “Make no little plans,” and Jules Guerin’s alluring watercolor renderings in the published “Plan of Chicago” gave this vision an ethereal cast.
In the mid-eighteen-nineties, Daniel Burnham, then the most prominent architect in Chicago, met with a young architect named Frank Lloyd Wright. Burnham had been impressed by Wright’s talent but felt that he could use some seasoning. He offered to pay Wright’s tuition at the École des Beaux-Arts, in Paris, to support his family, and to give him a job when he returned. Wright turned him down. It was one of the few times that Burnham, who was probably the most successful power broker the American architectural profession has ever produced, didn’t get his way, and he told Wright that he was making a mistake: the Beaux-Arts style, of which Burnham was a leading exponent, was taking over the country, and Wright was deluded if he thought that his modern approach, with its open spaces and horizontal lines, would ever amount to much.
Burnham and Wright went their separate ways, but their paths kept crossing, because if you had anything to do with American architecture around the turn of the century you inevitably ran into Burnham. He designed the Flatiron Building, in New York; Union Station in Washington, D.C.; Orchestra Hall in Chicago; Selfridges department store, in London; and more banks and office buildings than you could count. He got the train tracks that had despoiled the Mall in Washington for much of the nineteenth century removed and headed a Washington planning commission that, among other achievements, set the location for the Lincoln Memorial. Most important of all, a hundred years ago, in 1909, Burnham completed work on a document with the unassuming title “Plan of Chicago” that remains the most effective example of large-scale urban planning America has ever seen. Assisted by the young city planner Edward H. Bennett, he laid out the shorefront of Lake Michigan, quadrupling the amount of parkland and thus insuring that the lakefront would forever be public open space. He created the Magnificent Mile, the double-decker roadway of Wacker Drive, and the recreational Navy Pier, which extends into Lake Michigan. Envisioning Chicago as the anchor of an enormous region, he drafted a rough outline of highways to connect the city to the places around it. Quite simply, Burnham determined the shape of modern Chicago. Continue Reading