Chicago Commercial Club: Early planning’s philosopher kings.

Burnham's Civic Center Plaza - Wikipedia, 2/2/2014

Burnham’s Civic Center Plaza – Wikipedia, 2/2/2014

An intentionally pretentious, while moderately accurate title. While they may not have been exactly what Plato had in mind, it would appear they were empowered in the way he might have imagined. In many ways, the organization ‘built’ Chicago, steering it and planning for its future – a course that led it to today’s Windy City. Their names adorn neighborhoods, streets, museums, and public infrastructure. These individual’s contributions to the city, perhaps, kept it from stuttering incrementalism or economically stalling at times. Without their power, influence, and money, Chicago would look altogether different, and other places that emulated designs and plans would clearly not look as they do. Organizations such as the club have helped to bring change to stymied growth and development, revitalize city areas, and capture culture.

The Commercial Club began in 1877 as a group of already established businessmen with the intention of guiding the city to greatness. Their ranks included the likes of Daniel Burnham (Architect and designer of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition), Marshall Field (Department Store mogul), and George Pullman (Engineer and Railroad Car manufacturer) – rich men all. Aside from having means, this group had vision, both collectively and individually.

Daniel Burnham's Central Chicago Plan - Wikimedia, 2/2/2014

Daniel Burnham’s Central Chicago Plan – Wikimedia, 2/2/2014

The composition of businessmen, industrialists, bankers, inventors, lawyers and designers made for a powerful organization. It wasn’t long before they found a group of like-minded, similarly postured individuals with Chicago’s Merchant Club, who underwrote Burnham’s Chicago plan. The two merged in 1907, and between the powerful, elite and imaginative groups, ushered in an era of grand design, parks, monuments and an emphasis on civic virtue known as The City Beautiful Movement.

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.” – Daniel Burnham

Museum of Science and Industry - Wikipedia, 2/2/2014

Museum of Science and Industry – Wikipedia, 2/2/2014

As the World’s Columbian Exposition showed how a city could be, The Plan of Chicago developed by Burnham was an attempt at putting the idea into actual practice. As a concerted effort among the members, the Commercial Club of Chicago pushed Burnham’s plan as a response to a growing disdain for what Chicago had become – an overcrowded, dirty town. The plan was large in scale and scope, and required widening of congested streets, straightening of the Chicago River to allow better over-water transportation, a park system and symmetrical city layout. When all was said and done, the enhancements to the city would assist in the further growth and development of Chicago even until today, and for the following half-century after then plan The City Beautiful Movement would find roots all over the U.S.

Today, the Commercial Club of Chicago lives on, providing similar guidance to the city in the way of plans and vision encompassing everything from to transportation to education. It is still a civic innovator as well as a economic and cultural curator. Other organizations across the country have performed similarly in the wake of the club’s success. While some are more narrow in scope, tailoring their efforts to arts and history or transportation, others encompass the same broad design as that of the Chicago Club, such as the New York/ New Jersey Regional Plan Association – who’s members, not unlike the Chicago Clubs of 100 years ago until now, are made up of distinguished business folk and financiers, former political figures, and area icons (e.g. John Zuccotti).

It takes thinkers and innovators to plan and grow (and plan TO grow). It also, coincidentally, takes capital and and a good deal of influence. Sometimes those requisites are only embodied in organizations like the original Chicago Club, although that isn’t to say that “only the rich can make decisions.” However, judging from the membership of these past and present organizations that tends to be a historical trend.