Ken Burns, Chicago History & a Walk on Dearborn St.

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Dearborn at Wacker, Marina Towers

Dearborn at Wacker, Marina Towers

I’ve always been struck by the way that Chicagoans embrace their city as their birthright, no matter where they were born. They live their city’s history, hanging out in old corner bars or gathering in huge crowds at events like Taste of Chicago in Grant Park.

I couldn’t help thinking about Chicago history while I was hanging out downtown with some good friends on September 16th. We were at the Union League Club to see a sold-out talk by Ken Burns, the New Hampshire filmmaker who shot to fame after his PBS film series, The Civil War. The Club’s origin can be traced to the 1862 Union League movement, which supported the northern efforts in the war, and as Burns spoke, Illinois’s own Abraham Lincoln gazed down from the Main Dining Room’s tall west wall (you can just barely see it in the video, below). Listen to ULCC podcast.

[youtube=]Like Lincoln, Burns speaks eloquently and passionately about our nation’s past and current life. His newest documentary is “The National Parks, America’s Best Idea” (premiered on September 27, 2009). Burns’ eyes sparkled as he praised the revolutionary idea behind the National Parks system: the crazy notion that land should be owned and preserved by and for all the people, not just the wealthy. This foresight lets any American experience a place as a legacy passed down through the generations.

Stephen Tyng Mather

Stephen Tyng Mather

Of course, Chicago has no National Parks, but we do have some interesting ties to these places of beauty. Chicago businessman Stephen Tyng Mather was key to the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, and became its first director. Some of his key contributions included making the parks more accessible and visitor-friendly, and Mather High School (on Lincoln near Peterson) bears his name.

It’s likely that Mather mingled with Daniel Burnham and E. H. Bennett (co-authors of the 1909 Plan of Chicago); all three men were members at the exclusive Chicago Club. How I’d love to have eavesdropped on conversations between these citizens. How might have they influenced each other’s thoughts and actions? Bennett clearly brought a Paris influence to Burnham’s vision of public open space. Were Mather’s priorities affected by the Chicago Plan’s impact? Or alternately, did saving Chicago’s urban open space seem more urgent to the city planners in a time when the very idea of public ownership was wild and fresh? In any case, the 1909 plan left Chicagoans with their own legacy of ample parks and open lakefront.

Manadnock interior, 17th Floor architectural office

Manadnock interior, 17th Floor architectural office

After the Burns talk, I briefly visited the Manadnock Building across the street. The north half was designed by Burnham’s partner John Root, who died before the building was completed in 1893. Its sleek curved walls are amazingly supported by their own bricks, and run six feet thick at the bottom. This hulking beauty, named after a New Hampshire mountain, was once the world’s largest office building and a forerunner of modern architecture. It’s a no-brainer that my architect husband once had an office here. If you visit, you might enjoy a latte at Intelligencia’s Manadnock Coffeebar, a breath of fresh air at New Leaf Flowers, or a haircut at Frank’s Barber Shop. I always love to visit tiny Florodora, a perfect jewel of a boutique.


Next I took a lucky hike up Dearborn, catching every green light and passing the Berghoff Oktoberfest at Federal Plaza. Walking’s my favorite way to experience Chicago and its faces. Some sights:

40's architecture on Dearborn

40's architecture on Dearborn

A 1940s architectural relic overshadowed by new construction. [youtube=]

Bertrand Goldburg’s joyful 1960s Marina City towers. [youtube=]

If you’d like to learn more, check out these great books:

The Union League Club’s history is the subject of an entire book: Glory, Darkness, Light: A History of the Union League Club of Chicago.

William Cronon, a University of Wisconsin professor who appears in Burns new film, also wrote Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, a book about environmental history that I’m excited to read.

Don’t miss the incredibly beautiful companion book to the new Burns film, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns.

Happy exploring!

– Linda Gardner Philips

Click here to read more posts from Linda.

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4 thoughts on “Ken Burns, Chicago History & a Walk on Dearborn St.”

  1. Hello everybody!

    I got a question: In the “Civil War” it was mentioned that photographs taken during the war on glass-negatives were shortly after the war used for constructing glasshouses. Can anybody tell me more about that?

    Thanks for your help!
    Frank from Germany

  2. Thanks for your comment. Personally I don’t know about the use of glass-negatives (supposedly sold for greenhouses by Civil War photographer Matthew Brady) but here are a few links that might be interesting:

    An artist’s reconstruction of a similar greenhouse:

    A Kansas City man who wrote a song about the famed glass negatives:

    More information about photographer Matthew Brady:

    1. Thanks Linda for your interessting info. The reconstruction is something I found out myself, but the musician you mention was new to me.

      Thanks again, Frank

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