Thursday, January 9, 2014

Dwight Perkins and the City Beautiful: January 9, 1901

On this date, January 9, back in 1901 a great architect, a man who is often overlooked, even discredited, stood before a meeting of the Chicago Women’s club and made bold statements about what could be done to make Chicago a more beautiful place. 

The man was Dwight H. Perkins, and one day someone should write a book about a guy who richly deserves much more credit that he has ever been given.  Take a trip to the corner of Milwaukee and Addison one day and spend a half-hour walking around Carl Schurz High School, a place that to this ex-teacher is the most beautiful high school in the city, if not the country.

Or head down to the zoo and have an ice cream cone at the Café Brauer.  And move from there to the lion house, another Perkins design.  I just can’t say enough about this guy who, battling the political muckety-mucks at every turn, designed 40 schools in the city and was one of the most influential voices in the establishment of one of the area’s great resources, the Cook Country Forest Preserve system.

Carl Schurz High School (JWB Photo)
Café Brauer (JWB Photo)
Anyway, back in 1901 Mr. Perkins stood before his audience and expressed his hope that the new century would bring about a transformation of his city so complete that “the sun will shine in parts of the city which have not seen the full light of day since the fire.”  [Chicago Tribune, January 10, 2014]

He talked of his dream to turn the industrial backbone of Chicago, Halsted Street, into a boulevard, of making the derelict Goose Island into a park, and of turning the brown channel of waste that was the Chicago River into a “marble-lined stream of blue water.”

“When our ideas of municipal art begin to reach after these ‘waste places’,” he said, “and we find that they can be made to bloom the city beautiful will appear.  Our boulevards are good.  I believe now we should carry them through the parts of the city that are most neglected.  The parks are beautiful, but they must be carried into the wards where they are most needed.”

This speech came exactly eight years to the day before the great Chicago Plan of 1909 was unveiled at a banquet of the Commercial Club at the Congress Hotel.  Just another way in which history swept this visionary aside and found figures with more colorful stories to take his place.

As an aside, after Mr. Perkins made his remarks the rules of the club were suspended so that a plan could be formulated to take action for a defense of a small park at the junction of State and Rush Streets and Bellevue Place, under attack at the time by residents of the neighborhood.

Today that little park – exactly the kind of small park Dwight Perkins envisioned all over the city – is Mariano Park, named for a long-time reporter and editor for the Chicago Sun Times.  In the park stands a structure, originally a bus pavilion, designed by a contemporary of Dwight Perkins, Birch Burdette Long.  In fact, in 1900 Perkins’s wife, Lucy Fitch Perkins, encouraged the Chicago Women’s Club to hold a competition for that bus pavilion, and it is Mr. Long’s winning entry, a structure with an unerringly direct connection to Perkins himself, that still stands in that little park.  [Van Zanten, David.  Sullivan’s Ornament:  The Meaning of Ornament for Louis Sullivan.  p. 79]

Mariano Park with pavilion (Chicago Park District Photo)

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