An Olympian Chicago – American Travel

IN city planning, as in other things, Chicago has thought and plotted on an Olympian scale, and it is characteristic of Chicago that her plan for her own beautification should be so much greater than the plan of any other city in the country, as to make comparisons unkind. For that reason I have eliminated Chicago from consideration, when discussing the various group plans, park and boulevard systems, and “civic centers,” upon which other American cities are at work.

The Chicago plan is, indeed, too immense a thing to be properly dealt with here. It is comparable with nothing less than the Haussman plan for Paris, and it is being carried forward, through the years, with the same foresight, the same patience and the same indomitable aspiration. Indeed, I think greater patience has been required in Chicago, for the French people were in sympathy with beauty at a time when the broad meaning of the word was actually not understood in this country. Here it has been necessary to educate the masses, to cultivate their city pride, and to direct that pride into creative channels. It is hardly too much to say that the minds of American city-dwellers (and half our race inhabits cities) have had to be remade, in order to prepare them to receive such plans as the Chicago plan.

The World’s Columbian Exposition, at Chicago, exerted a greater influence upon the United States than any other fair has ever exerted upon a country. It came at a critical moment in our esthetic history—a moment when the sense of beauty of form and color, which had hitherto been dormant in Americans, was ready to be aroused.

Fortunately for us, the Chicago Fair was worthy of the opportunity; and that it was worthy of the opportunity was due to the late Daniel Hudson Burnham, the distinguished architect, who was director of works for the Exposition. In the perspective of the twenty-one years which have passed since the Chicago Fair, the figure of Mr. Burnham, and the importance of the work done by him, grows larger. When the history of the American Renaissance comes to be written, Daniel H. Burnham and the men by whom he was surrounded at the time the Chicago Fair was being made, will be listed among the founders of the movement.

The Fair awoke the American sense of beauty. And before its course was run, a group of Chicago business men, some of whom were directors of the exposition, determined to have a plan for the entire city which should so far as possible reflect the lessons of the Fair in the arrangement of streets, parks and plazas, and the grouping of buildings.

After the Fair, the Chicago Commercial Club commissioned Mr. Burnham to proceed to re-plan the city. Eight years were consumed in’ this work. The best architects available were called in consultation. After having spent more than $200,000, the Commercial Club presented the plan to the city, together with an elaborate report.

To carry out the plan, the Chicago City Council, in 1909, created a Plan Commission, composed of more than 300 men, representing every element of citizen-ship under the permanent chairmanship of Mr. Charles H. Wacker, who had previously been most active in the work. Under Mr. Wacker’s direction, and with the aid of continued subscriptions from the Commercial Club, the work of the Commission has gone on steadily, and vast improvements have already been made.

The Plan itself has to do entirely with the physical rearrangement of the city. It is designed to relieve congestion, facilitate traffic, and safeguard health.

Instead of routing out the Illinois Central Railroad which disfigures the lake front of the whole South Side, the plan provides for the making of a parkway half a mile wide and five miles long, beyond the tracks, where the lake now is. This parkway will extend from Grant Park, at the center of the city, all the way to Jackson Park, where the World’s Fair grounds were. Arrangements have also been made for immense forest areas, to encircle the city outside its limits, occupying somewhat the relation to it that the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes do to Paris. New parks are also to be created within the city.

It is impossible to go into further details here as to these parks, but it should be said that, when the lake front parkway system, above mentioned, is completed, practically the whole front of Chicago along Lake Michigan will be occupied by parks and lagoons, and that Chicago expects—and not without reason—to have the finest waterfront of any city in the world.

Michigan Avenue, the city’s superb central street which already bears very heavy traffic, now has a width of 130 feet at the heart of the city, excepting to the north, near the river, where it becomes a narrow, squalid street, for all that it is the principal highway between the North and South Sides. This portion of the street is not only to be widened, but will be made into a two-level thoroughfare (the lower level for heavy vehicles and the upper for light) crossing the river on a double-deck bridge.

It is a notorious fact that the business and shopping district of Chicago is at present strangled by the elevated railroad loop, which bounds the center of the city, and it is essential for the welfare of the city that this area be extended and made more spacious. The City Plan provides for a “quadrangle” to cover three square miles at the heart of Chicago, to be bounded on the east by Michigan Avenue, on the north by Chicago Avenue, on the west by Halsted Street, and on the south by Twelfth Street. When this work is done these streets will have been turned into wide boulevards, and other streets, running through the quadrangle, will also have been widened and improved, principal among these being Congress Street, which though not at present cut through, will ultimately form a great central artery, leading back from the lake, through the center of the quadrangle, forming the axis of the plan, and centering on a “civic center,” which is to be built at the junction of Congress and Halsted Streets and from which diagonal streets will radiate in all directions.

Nor does the plan end here. A complete system of exterior roadways will some day encircle the city; the water front along the river will be improved and new bridges built; also two outer harbors will be developed.

By an agreement with the city, no major public work of any description is inaugurated until the Plan Commission has passed upon its harmonious relationship with the general scheme. The Commission further considers the comprehensive development of the city’s steam rail-way and street transportation systems ; very recently it successfully opposed a railroad union depot project which was inimical to the Plan of Chicago, and it has generally succeeded in persuading the railroads to work in harmony with the plan, when making immediate improvements.

One of the most interesting and intelligently con-ducted departments under the Commission has to do with the education of the people of Chicago with regard to the Plan. A great deal of money and energy has been expended in this work, with the result that city-wide misapprehension concerning the Plan has given place to city-wide comprehension. Lectures are given before schools and clubs with the idea of teaching Chicago what the plan is, why it is needed, and what great European cities have accomplished in similar directions. Books on the subject have been published and widely circulated, and one of these, “Wacker’s Manual,” has been adopted as a textbook by the Chicago Public Schools, with the idea of fitting the coming generations to carry on the work.

If the plan as it stands at present has been accomplished within a long lifetime, Chicago will have maintained her reputation for swift action. Two or three lifetimes would be time enough in any other city. However, Chicago desires the fulfillment of the prophecy she has on paper. Work is going on, and the extent to which it will go on in future depends entirely upon the ability of the city to finance Plan projects. And when a thing depends upon the ability of the city of Chicago, it depends upon a very solid and a very splendid thing.