Finding a Home for Daniel Burnham

Any large project undertaken in a major metropolitan area is going to be fraught with controversy.  It’s just the nature of the game.

The current game being played is “Where’s Burnham” — an exercise is finding the perfect, or rather least imperfect, location for the new Daniel Brunham Memorial.

A number of locations have been proposed and rejected for one reason or another, but officially at least, none has been chosen.

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One location under consideration by the organizers of the Burnham competition is in a field in Grant Park south of the sitting Lincoln statue (see map above).  Officially, the name of this area is President’s Court.  It has the advantages of being somewhat centrally located in Grant Park, and in an area with a fairly low density of other monuments.
But the Chicago Park District doesn’t like that location for a Burnham Monument.  Can you guess why?
Don’t tell anyone, but it’s being “held” in reserve for a future Barack Obama monument.  Barack Obama’s statue would stare north across Congress Parkway at the existing Abraham Lincoln monument. Get the symbolism?  At this point, unless Barack Obama sets off a nuke in the White House, he’s pretty much socially guaranteed a place in Grant Park.

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Another area being looked at is the northern part of Grant Park (see map above).  There are already plans underway to rehab the entire area, providing better links to the lakefront, rehabbing the leaking parking garages underneath all of the pretty gardens, and to make the entire area a little more cohesive.
But organizers feel the zone has been tainted by the Children’s Museum controversy and won’t touch it with a ten foot pole for fear of being sucked into that mess.
Also on the list — the Congress Parkway median between Michigan Avenue and Buckingham Fountain (again, see the map). This location has great promise because it features some of Burnham’s greatest design work and is at the epicenter of his vision for the city.

But some feel the space is too constricted and hard for visitors to get to.  Congress Parkway is still a very busy thoroughfare in this area, especially during rush hours.  It might necessitate a bridge to get people there, like the one now linking the Lurie Garden with the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing.  That won’t work.  Vertical elements are very heavily frowned upon by those judging the competition.

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That leaves one other place under consideration:  The forecourt of the Field Museum (map).

Until the recent realignment of Lake Shore Drive, this area was tiered surface parking lots.  The Chicago Park District has since transformed it into a grassy oasis giving people driving down the Drive a dramatic view of the Field Museum, and giving people on the north side of the Field Museum a dramatic view of the Chicago skyline.

That’s one reason the Park District likes this location — it has a goal of drawing more visitors into the area immediately north of the museum.  It’s seen as an underutilized area.  The hope is that the Burnham Monument would help organize the area and people would use the additional walkways instead of blazing their own goat paths across the grass.

Also backing this location are officials with the Museum Campus who see a Burnham monument in their backyard as part of the campus’ continuing mission as an educational institution.

The area just north of the Field Museum is officially known as Burnham Park, and a statue in the proposed zone could conceivably gaze out over its namesake park, across the city Burnham designed, with the Field Museum (another Burnham design) at his back.

How firm is this location for the Burnham Memorial?  It depends who you ask.

While it is true that this location was given to the 20 firms that entered the Burnham contest as a location, the official word from contest organizers is that it’s not set in stone.  It was given to the contestants as an example of an ideal location, so that they would have something to design against.

Others don’t see it that way.  People who live nearby believe the North Field location is a fait accompli, and is being shoved down Chicago’s throat with no input from the public.

Organizers have promised that the public will have a chance to give its input on the location at meetings to be held after June 19th.  But that’s not soon enough for some.

They criticize the location as being impractical in winter.  They claim that it would only be used seasonally because of its proximity to the lake.  But others who actually live nearby say winter is no obstacle for thousands of people who use the area year-round right now.

And then there are those who believe any location in grant Park is a bad one.  They feel that there is already enough “furniture” in Grant Park, and that spaces that were once natural oases are being overrun by man-made accoutrements.  There is something to be said for this view.  Though many look to Millennium Park as a great success in terms of urban park planning, others see it a similar application elsewhere in Grant Park as the worst possible outcome — turning green spaces into low maintenance pseudo amusement parks.

  • Coming up tomorrow: What the city does and doesn’t want in a Burnham memorial.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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