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A Civic Seance: Can the Spirit of Daniel Burnham Reshape Chicago?

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Daniel Burnham has his face pressed against the glass of the skydeck of Sears Tower, until 1996 the tallest building on the face of the earth. Everywhere below him, he sees traces of his landmark 1909 Plan of Chicago, some glorious, some grotesque.

Where Burnham had projected Congress Parkway as a grand civic promenade, he sees a View image concrete gutter of an expressway, terminated by a Congress Street that makes the final run to the lake as little more than an off-ramp. But along the lake - ah! Stretching both north and south, an emerald buffer of parkland, with beaches and trails and harbors.

What would Uncle Dan, as Frank Lloyd Wright used to call him, have to say to us today if he popped up on Oprah?

That's going to be the focus of a lot of speculation as we move toward the 100 year celebration of the Burnham Plan. Already, architects Zaha Hadid and Ben van Berkel of UN Studio - neither of whom have built in the city - have been chosen to create temporary pavilions scheduled to open next June in Millennium Park to house "video exhibits and programming related to Burnham and big dreams for the future," according to The Burnham Plan Centennial website.

One focus of that celebration is the future of Chicago's Union Station, designed by the successor firm to Burnham and Company, Graham, Anderson, Probst and White. It was the View image last - and grandest - of the city's great rail terminals. The station lost its head in 1969, when its great steel and glass concourse, a close second to Penn Station's in New York in majesty, was demolished for an anonymous office tower. The soaring travertine-clad waiting room lined with tall Corinthian columns survives, one of Chicago's greatest interior spaces.

Today, over 54,000 passengers, mostly commuters but also 7,000 Amtrak riders, use the station each weekday.

This month the Chicago Architectural Club has announced a competition, Union Station View image 2020 | A Crossroads for the High-Speed Rail City, charging entrants with devising
". . . innovative solutions for the transformation of Union Station into a center of high speed rail traffic and related programs."

With the airlines increasing, apparently limitless contempt for their passengers driving more and more travelers into Amtrak's arms, the importance of inter-city rail is finally shaking free from decades of Reagan-styled abuse and ridicule.

People are awakening as if from a trance to the realization that mid-distance rail travel isn't a punch line but an escape valve.

Drive to the airport. Make sure you get there a last an hour before your flight. Anticipate delayed departures and even later arrivals. Then, when you finally arrive at your destination, View image there's another long trip into the city. When Amtrak is not totally dysfunctional, it will get you there faster, and perhaps, on a good day, even more pleasantly.

With no federal or state commitment to increasing funding for inter-city rail, and an imploding economy, the Architectural Club's competition has no small measure of "if we build it, they will come" romanticism about it, but who knows? Maybe the stars will align, and it won't just be ethanol coming out of the cornfields.

Submission of entries to Union Station 2020 opens October 10th and closes October 15th. Winners will be announced November 8th, and entries will be exhibited at the Chicago History Museum. More information can be found on the CAC website here. Read more of my commentary on Union Station and the competition here.