1837 - Chicago adopts beautification motto
The history of the Boulevard System of Chicago has its roots in 1837, when the newly incorporated city adopted as its motto "Urbs in Horto", which means "city in a garden." This motto was intended to portray Chicago as a beautiful gateway to the fertile lands of the west. Originally Chicago had few public parks or plazas. The most notable was Michigan Avenue, a promenade street for the wealthy, who lived in mansions on the west side of the street facing Lake Michigan. In 1839, the only park was Dearborn Park, a half-mile square located at the current site of the Chicago Cultural Center. Washington Square was built three years later, followed by Jefferson, Union, Ellis, and Vernon parks.
1849 - Concept of a boulevard system
In 1849 John S. Wright, an early developer, envisioned a need for beautification of the dusty, dirty neighborhoods, and he proposed a system of boulevards to completely encircle the city. He said "I foresee a time, not very distant, when Chicago will need for its fast increasing population a park or parks in each division (referring to the south, west and north sides of the city). Of these parks I have a vision. They are all improved and connected with a wide avenue extending to and along the Lake shore on the north and south, and so surrounding the city with a magnificent chain of parks and parkways that have not their equal in the World."
1866 - Support by the Chicago Times newspaper
In 1866, the Chicago Times published a plan based on John S. Wright's concept. It proposed a continuous encirclement of the city with a 2,240 acre park, 14 miles long by one-quarter mile wide, and boulevards lining each side of the park strip. Although the plan was never implemented, it did provide a foundation for the present boulevard system, authorized by State legislation three years later.
1869 - Legislation created three park districts
In 1869, the State of Illinois passed three pieces of legislation creating the South, West and North (Lincoln) Park districts. It not only outlined the powers and duties of the park districts, but also detailed the location of the parks and connecting boulevards (figure above). Each District was given the power to regulate all land use within 400 feet of the boulevards and to establish building setbacks at 50 feet. The legislation also empowered them to levy special taxes and to review the designs of all buildings to be constructed facing the boulevards. Although this system of boulevards and parks was located outside the city limits at the time, it was intended as a circle of beautiful thoroughfares to encourage orderly expansion of the young city.
1870 - Construction of the South Park District
The South Park District commissioned the firm of Olmsted and Vaux, designers of Central Park in New York City, to design its park and boulevard system. William Shaler Cleveland, a landscape engineer, implemented Olmsted's plans. The design for Jackson and Washington parks included two connections-one via Midway Plaisance and the other a waterway connection from the lake through Jackson Park to Washington Park. A formal boulevard connected Gage Park and McKinley Park.
1870 - Construction of the West Park District
The West Park District commissioned William Le Baron Jenney to design Douglas, Garfield and Humboldt parks and the connecting boulevards. Jenney created a formal, regimented planting of trees along the boulevards with impressive squares (Independence, Garfield, Sacramento, Palmer and Logan) at the boulevard turning points. The parks on the other hand were more informal, breaking up the formality of the boulevards and providing recreational space. The boulevards were not constructed for recreation, but simply as formal promenades for carriage rides and leisurely walks. When Jenney resigned in 1874, he was succeeded by his assistant Oscar F. Dubuis. Dubuis was faced with a multitude of problems including moist, poorly drained land. He created a drainage system to replace the open ditches and installed gas lighting along the boulevards and entrances to the parks. To combat the dusty road conditions, he initiated a "street washer" system along the boulevards for irrigating the medians and watering the graveled streets to hold down dust.
1871 - Control over the boulevards
To ensure that the boulevards were pleasure drives, speed limits were set at a maximum of eight miles per hour in 1871, and all vehicles "transporting merchandise, commercial goods, building materials, manure, soil, and other articles" were banned from the boulevards in 1873. Originally the boulevards served the wealthy, who built their mansions along the parkway. Soon, however, public phaetons (carriages) traveled along the boulevards to permit greater access to the parks by all citizens.
1871 - The Great Fire
On Sunday, October 8, 1871, construction of the parks and boulevards came to a sudden halt as the Great Fire destroyed the city from 12th Street to Fullerton. Within a few months, however, boulevard construction resumed, since citizens were forced to move out from the devastated city and the boulevards offered that opportunity.
1875 - Construction of the North Park District
The North (Lincoln) Park District plan was tied up in litigation over its taxing authority by land speculators who wanted large sums of money for their property. When the legal challenges were resolved in 1875 and the district was empowered to levy taxes and widen Diversey Parkway, commercial and residential development along the street had extended too far and purchasing and razing hundreds of buildings was prohibitive. Therefore, Diversey Parkway never became a formal boulevard and the system ended at Logan Boulevard.
1893 - World Columbian Exposition
By 1893 Chicago had recovered from the fire and it stood as a testament to man's resilience to disaster. To celebrate, the City hosted the World Columbian Exposition, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America. Daniel Burnham transformed a swamp in Jackson Park into a "White City" with Frederick Law Olmsted as the landscape architect. Visitors to the fair were so impressed with the beauty of Chicago's parks and boulevards that they dubbed it the "Emerald necklace" of Chicago. Later similar boulevard systems were developed in Boston, Kansas City and Washington, D.C.
1900 - Monument donations
Civic-minded wealthy citizens donated money for installation of the Independence Monument and Fountain in Independence Square in 1901, the equestrian statue of George Washington in Washington Square in 1904, and the William McKinley Monument at McKinley Park in 1905. In 1918 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the State of Illinois, Logan Square was chosen as the site for a magnificent monument donated by Ferguson.
1909 - Burnham's Plan of Chicago
Daniel Burnham, the principal designer of the Columbian Exposition, and Edward H. Bennett published The Plan of Chicago in 1909. Although the entire plan was never enacted, the creation of the city's lakefront chain of parks, Lake Shore Drive and the riverfront stone facade at Michigan Avenue helped beautify the city forever.
1914 - Modernization of the boulevards
From 1914 to 1918 Chicagoans were converting from horsepower to automobile power. The roadways along the boulevards were paved and electric lighting was installed. Automatic traffic towers called "dummy policemen" were installed at busy intersections along the boulevards to regulate the flow of traffic. During these years, curved drives were straightened, medians were bisected and parking areas were developed.
1920 - Fashionable Apartment Buildings
During the 1920s, upscale apartment buildings were erected along the boulevards. The middle class was moving into the previously restricted territory of the wealthy. These buildings, however, were designed to blend with the mansions and often contained amenities such as ponds, bridges and beautiful gardens. Large multipurpose auditorium buildings were constructed at major squares to serve the entertainment and socializing needs of the communities.
1933 - The Chicago Park District Is Created
The three separate park districts were consolidated into the Chicago Park District in 1933, and improvements were undertaken as part of the Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA). New landscaping, monuments and mural paintings in the field houses provided needed work for many citizens.
1945 to 1955 - Deterioration of the boulevard system
World War II siphoned off money previously allotted to landscape beautification, and soldiers returning from the war and ready to begin families opted to move to the suburbs where new, affordable housing was exploding. Many wealthy families abandoned their residences along the boulevards and in their place came less affluent families who could not afford the high cost of maintenance of the large buildings. By the 1950s, many sections of the boulevard system began to crumble from neglect, and magnificent mansions were razed to make way for less expensive homes. Since mansions on the south boulevards built in the 1880s were the oldest, decay began there first. Mansions on Kedzie and Logan Boulevards built in the early 1900s were largely spared, since original families still occupied them and could afford the cost of continued maintenance.
1959 - Transfer of boulevards to the City of Chicago
The Park District relinquished control of the boulevards to the City in 1959, retaining control only of the parks. The Department of Streets and Sanitation and later Forestry with reduced budgets have had difficulty maintaining the pristine beauty that originally existed.
1980 - Citizens take Control
A group of concerned citizens in Logan Square created a neighborhood organization called "Logan Square Preservation" to preserve the architectural integrity of buildings along the boulevard, restore the beauty by purchasing, planting and maintaining street trees and flowerbeds and educating citizens about the historic significance of the boulevards. Citizens working together and caring for their heritage sparked a new interest in preserving the boulevards.
1985 - National landmark designation "Logan Square Boulevards Historic District" (figure above - shaded area)
In 1985, Logan Square Preservation convinced the U.S. Department of the Interior to designate the best-preserved 2 1/2 mile segment of the original boulevard system in Logan Square as the "Logan Square Boulevards Historic District." This national registry landmark designation was the first step in preserving the grand boulevard system of Chicago.
1995 - The City is Rediscovered
Like many large cities, Chicago lost population during a move to the suburbs in the 1960s to 1980s. By 1995 Chicago was being recognized as an attractive place to live and citizens saw the boulevards as a hybrid of formal city living combined with the spatial feeling of the suburbs. The visual effect of living near the boulevards with its charming blend of original architectural buildings and immediate access to downtown and the airport via an expressway fueled a desire for new construction.
2001 - Down zoning the boulevards
By 2001 the increasing popularity of the neighborhood and the trend of tearing down single family homes to build multi-unit condominiums threatened the integrity and historic significance of the boulevards. Although the national landmark designation offered tax and restoration incentives, it did not guarantee any real protection for its buildings. Therefore, Logan Square Preservation decided to take another step to preserve them. They worked with the Alderman and the City to down zone most of Logan Boulevard from R4 and R5 to R3.
2005 - Chicago landmark designation "Logan Square Boulevards District" (figure above - shaded area)
Although down zoning does restrict the size of new buildings, it provides no protection, whatsoever, to the historic appearances of the buildings. In 2003 after many discussions with preservation experts, Logan Square Preservation concluded that the only real protection was via City landmark district designation. Our Alderman agreed to place a referendum on the general ballot asking whether or not citizens felt the boulevards should be preserved. An overwhelming 89% agreed, and that was the stimulus needed to pursue the idea with vigor. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks, Department of Planning sent notices to building owners along the proposed district, and many public meetings were held. Although initially there was some opposition, it soon waned as meetings progressed, and at the final two public hearings there was no opposition voiced. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks unanimously approved the proposal on October 27, 2005 and on November 1, 2005 the Chicago City Council designated the "Logan Square Boulevards District" as an official city landmark district. This district includes Humboldt Boulevard north of Cortland Street, Kedzie Boulevard, Logan Square and the Illinois Centennial monument, Logan Boulevard to the Kennedy Expressway and 330 buildings facing these boulevards. This landmark designation will provide protection and preservation of these historic boulevards and buildings for future generations of Chicagoans to enjoy, as we do today!