Friday, March 18, 2011


Elizabeth, Daniel Burnham's mother, kept the family in Henderson, New York as long as it took to care for her ailing father, Holland Weeks. But after Reverend Weeks' death, the family was ready to leave the quiet shores of Lake Erie. Edwin, Daniel's father, saw safe opportunity along the Erie Canal in Rome, NY. But Elizabeth insisted on Chicago. Daniel's rich Uncle Dyer had preceded them by two years and had developed a successful law practice. (Note to self. Where was Dyer when Edwin was fleeced in a late 1853 deal to buy a Joliet stone quarry?)

The Burnhams arrived in Chicago in 1854. Just in time for a cholera epidemic. Most of the town still occupied undrainable swamp. But the seemingly impossible task of raising street levels by ten feet (and jacking up the buildings that faced them) had begun. Chicago's population had doubled since 1850. Filth and growth were palpable. The Rock Island Line had just connected Chicago to the Mississippi via railroad. -- making even faster growth possible. And what seemed an impossible turn of events, the Chicago River was closed at Clark Street. A ship had rammed the bridge.

And there were Germans. Speaking German. Everywhere.

It's dangerous territory for a Blogger to guess what might have impressed or affected 8 year old Daniel Burnham most during these years. Although it is safe to assume that the move was not easy. I would look for familiar things. Amid the strangeness and chaos and filth.

The symbol of stability and comfort would be the fine, white clapboard houses. With columns. Greek Revival. Like rich Uncle Dyer's house, left behind in Sackets Harbor. Or the Widow Clarke's house in Chicago and the dozens like it.

The Widow Clarke House

It should be no mystery why, later in life, Daniel would so easily accept the classic columns, (albeit improved, and presented in stone) or why he would so thoroughly understand the need for a City Beautiful.


Both Daniel Burnham and the Widow Clarke House took their place on South Prairie Avenue.  Though, some 100 years apart.


Researching this post, I discovered that it was NOT Horace Greeley who said "Go West, young man....."  It was Hoosier newspaperman John Soule in 1851.  The same John Soule who ended up Pastor of the Highland Park Presbyterian Church.  He died in 1891.



  1. The city in the 1850's must have been fertile ground for any Swedenborgian who was looking to repent, reform and regenerate; there was plenty of ground for a soul to work 24 hours a day on all three. To an eight-year-old it must have been a wide-eyed panorama of wonders. Thanks for your usual great job of setting the scene for us.

  2. I spent time yesterday at the Swedenborg Library -- and I'll have to admit that I'm a little wide-eyed myself! I'll be posting on the Garden City Institute shortly.... Thanks for reading and good luck with your blog Nice job.