The City in a Garden

A Photographic History of Chicago's Parks

Lakefront Development: 1890s-1930s

lakefront-developmentWhile Chicago's neighborhoods were developing, the downtown lakefront received attention. After transforming wind-swept, sandy Jackson Park into the glistening World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, Daniel H. Burnham began to envision Grant Park as a lovely campus of civic and cultural buildings with the Field Museum of Natural History as its centerpiece. He also began sketching a magnificent linear lakefront park and boulevard that would link Grant Park with Jackson Park, the site of the World's Fair. These extraordinary ideas were incorporated into Burnham and Bennett's seminal 1909 Plan of Chicago.

Although the South Park Commission took immediate action to realize Burnham's ambitious plans, significant factors delayed progress. For years, Grant Park was little more than a dumping ground with garbage heaps and squatters shacks along an unfinished stretch of landfill. Mail order magnate Aaron Montgomery Ward, whose offices were located across the street on Michigan Avenue, filed a series of lawsuits relating to Grant Park. Initially, Ward had only hoped to improve the park's unsightly appearance. When Burnham's plans were announced, however, Ward focused his attention on the need to protect the lakefront as open space. Due to the early restrictions placed on development, the State Supreme Court ruled in Ward's favor, prohibiting construction of the Field Museum in the center of Grant Park in 1911. Later that year, the South Park Commission negotiated with the Illinois Central Railroad to acquire riparian rights south of the existing park. By gaining these rights, the commission was able to begin landfill operations to expand Grant Park to the south, creating an alternate site for the museum.

The South Park Commission's agreement also made way for Burnham's scheme to create a new linear park of human-made islands, a boat harbor, bathing beaches, meadows, and playfields, extending from Grant to Jackson parks. Before any work could proceed, however, many other legal matters had to be settled. For example, there were various lawsuits between park interests and other lakefront property owners, and government agencies at every level, including the Secretary of War, had to approve the plans. In 1920, consent of all parties was finally secured, and voters approved a $20 million bond issue to finance the project. Landfill operations began at the northern end of the new park, and by 1925 new landforms were constructed as far south as 23rd Street. With work on the mainland progressing and Northerly Island taking shape, the South Park commissioners officially named the entire site in honor of Daniel H. Burnham in 1927.

The proximity of Burnham Park to museums, newly constructed Soldier Field, good transportation, and dramatic lakefront views all made it an ideal location for Chicago second world's fair in 1933-1934. General Charles S. Dawes, then Vice President of the United States, spearheaded the organizing committee and suggested that the entire fair be privately financed. The World's Fair organization conducted an extremely successful campaign, raising the necessary funds in the midst of the Great Depression. As landfill operations were underway, architect Edward H. Bennett, who had previously designed buildings for the South Park Commission as a member of D. H. Burnham & Co., began laying out the plan for the fair.

Entitled A Century of Progress, the fair celebrated "the progress of civilization during the hundred years of Chicago's existence." 1 This theme, the fair's gleaming asymmetrical campus of Art Deco style buildings, and its focus on technological advances gave visitors a sense of hopefulness and pride during the difficult Depression years. In addition to museum and corporate exhibits, the fair featured attractions such as the "Sky Ride," with double-decker rocket cars running along cables between two giant towers, and "Wings of a Century,"highlighting the century's advances in transportation from stagecoaches to airplanes. Foreign governments participated by creating "Streets of Paris," the "Black Forest Village," and other replicas of famous places. The Midway offered exotic and bizarre exhibits, including the "Odditorium" and "Ripley's Believe it Or Not." Most popular of the fair, however, was the risqué fan dancer, Sally Rand. A Century of Progress boasted 82 miles of spectacles, rides, and exhibits, attracting more than 38 million visitors for two full seasons in 1933 and 1934.


1. Lenox R. Lohr, Fair Management: The Story of A Century of Progress, Chicago: Cuneo Press, 1952, p. 15.