When the forces of good are mobilized against Frank Cowperwood, the financial predator in Theodore Dreiser’s The Titan, they have to use tainted instruments to encompass his downfall. Smiling Mike Tiernan and Emerald Pat Kerrigan, saloonkeepers and vote deliverers, are the sordid men who wield power in Chicago’s Loop district. Dreiser modeled them closely upon Bathhouse John Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna, the most famous ward bosses in the scrambling years of Chicago’s growth. Bathhouse was elected an alderman in 1892, when the city was creating the Columbian Exposition. He remained in the office for forty-five years, ending his days of power as a flunky to A1 Capone.

But in his prime, he and Hinky Dink were lords of the combined forces of the First Ward, with its daytime bustle around Chicago’s grand new skyscrapers and its night-time swarm of transients and regulars through the red light districts along the Chicago River’s South Branch. The police made life safe for the illegal businesses of “Bath and the Hink,” and the two of them made elections safe for Chicago’s cultured rulers, men like Carter Harrison II, educated abroad and at Yale Law School, the inheritor of his father’s office as mayor of Chicago.

Harrison, in his charming autobiography, treats Coughlin and Kenna as Dogberrys he used for his own amusement. He likes to quote their malapropisms—Coughlin protesting that honesty always “caricatured” his campaigns.1 When the flamboyant Coughlin seemed to be going too far, Harrison asked the dour partner, Kenna, if his friend were crazy, and got this answer: “No, John isn’t dotty and he ain’t full of dope. To tell you the God’s truth, Mr. Mayor, they ain’t found the name for it yet.”

But Carter Harrison II, for all his condescension, needed his cronies. He admits that he was pulled through his close 1911 election by “the flop vote”—the flop houses emptied out by Coughlin and Kenna, sailors and other transients voting as if they were ward residents. Harrison adds, stoically: “In politics you must take them as they come.” Coughlin and Kenna were the eleven-foot poles he used to touch even worse parts of the ward.

My theory in dealing with the more unsavory individuals, with whom political fate insisted on throwing me, was to exert what I had of skill and intelligence in lifting them to as high a standard of political philosophy as I might, the while I held to my own standards.

It is a standard of political life—“I use the crooks, but I’m not a crook”—honored continuously into the era of Richard J. Daley.

The shaping of that political culture made sense in Chicago’s early years. Though “Bath” and “Hink” dealt largely with the Irish of the First Ward, who spoke their own form of the English language, aldermen to other wards were literally ambassadors to foreign populations, those speaking German, Polish, Czech, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Russian, Greek. The new flood of immigrants skipped over the filled-up areas of the East and came directly to the Midwest, where Chicago was growing exponentially and creating thousands of new jobs each year. “By 1890, sixty years after its birth, Chicago had become a city of a million persons, and three-quarters of them were either foreign born or children of the foreign born.”2

And they just kept coming. The entire population of Chicago was a million in 1890, but by 1910 two million people had arrived from Poland alone.3 When Tolstoy asked Jane Addams, during her visit to Russia, why she did not dress like a peasant, she thought “it would have been hard to choose among the thirty-six nationalities we had recently counted in our ward.”4

A natural sifting process put these immigrants in pockets of their own nationalities. Jobs and neighborhoods were parceled out by ethnic division, and politics naturally followed. There were as many subordinate “machines” as there were clusters of potential voters. While ethnic pride and cohesion, including the religious rites of the homeland, gave some order to crowded neighborhoods, the working and living conditions were deliberately kept at a Darwinian level of competitive striving. And overnight millionaires did everything possible to distance themselves from the overnight arrivals. Harrison, who spoke German from his school days in Europe, was an early patron of Wagner—which was one way of distinguishing himself from the German-speaking immigrants in Oscar Mayer’s sausage factory.

Chicago, by 1900, was a perfect laboratory of different cultures crammed into narrow confines. Extreme wealth daintily picked its way through poverty and filth. This laboratory of social dynamics seemed to call out for laboratory observers—and John D. Rockefeller created the observation post in 1892, when his money opened the University of Chicago. No other university in history has drawn so much of its mission from the study of its own surroundings. Perched unhappily in that nest, like a gargoyle in the Gothic towers he sneered at, Thorstein Veblen created his theory of conspicuous consumption by a close, disgusted inspection of the likes of Carter Harrison.5


Other members of the great new faculty at the university would make names for themselves and for their institution by studying the immigrants, slums, and poverty of Chicago; but Veblen was less interested in the poor than in pillorying the rich, and Chicago gave him endlessly inviting targets. Mr. Rockefeller’s school in a new city of the West was a mock fortress, with

a fictitious winding stair thrown into the design to permit such a façcade as will simulate the defensive details of a mediaeval keep, to be surmounted by embrasured battlements and a (make-believe) loopholed turret. So, again, space will, on the same ground, be wasted in heavy-ceiled, ill-lighted lobbies; which might once have served as a mustering place for a body of unruly men-at-arms.6

Bad enough that modern scholars sneeze in chilly dungeons meant for storing armor. It reduced Veblen to seizures of violent laughter that the same architect responsible for the university—Henry Ives Cobb—had put up the most famously pretentious private mansion in Chicago, using all the same Gothic excrescences to create a “bastard antique” for Potter Palmer. Nothing could better illustrate Veblen’s thesis that conspicuously wasteful structures were talismans of “predatory prowess.” Mrs. Potter Palmer’s famous residence—where she played host to visiting royalty during the Columbian Exposition—was a war-trophy of entrepreneurial combat. Even Bertha Palmer recognized this, according to the literary portrait drawn of her in 1895 by the Chicago novelist Henry B. Fuller.

She shows up in Fuller’s novel With the Procession as Susan Bates. She instructs the novel’s young heroine on the uses of unuseful things: “As for all these books [in the castle’s library], heaven only knows where the keys are to get at them…all for show and display, bought by the pound and stocked by the cord.”7 In Fuller’s eyes, Mrs. Palmer did not even enjoy her wealth’s appurtenances. Her tastes ran to the “elaborate and ingenious simplicity” of her own manners.8 Though she frankly admits that her art gallery is a “branch of industry,” she became Mary Cassatt’s patron and, with Cassatt’s assistance, acquired some of America’s Impressionist paintings, which later formed the nucleus of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Impressionist collection.

Bertha Palmer was not only rich but a do-gooder—just the combination Veblen hated in Rockefeller, the benefactor of his own university. Ladies’ philanthropies are a use of “conspicuous leisure” ridiculed, in The Theory of the Leisure Class, for theatrically fussing over “some specious object of amelioration.”9 Bertha Palmer surely earned Veblen’s view of her conspicuous consumption—Chaliapin claimed that when he sang for one of her private parties, she had a flutist hired to perch on a tree outside her rented London house and imitate the nightingale.10

No one better illustrates the huge fortunes made in Chicago than the wife of Potter Palmer. She was also a trophy in Veblen’s sense—Potter had picked out this beauty to be his when he saw her in 1862. She was only thirteen. He wed her after she had completed her convent education, when he was forty-four and she twenty-one. After making his fortune with a department store (which would later become Marshall Field), Palmer had switched to real estate and owned three dozen buildings by the time of his marriage, including the Palmer House Hotel, nearing completion when the newlyweds departed for Europe. Within a year the Great Fire had destroyed all of Palmer’s buildings. But he rebuilt even more grandly. For his own house, he took a swamp on the lake, filled it in, and created that stretch of Lake Shore Drive that would be known as the Gold Coast when other pretentious houses went up near his Gothic castle.

Palmer was one of the city fathers who planned and financed the Columbian Exposition; but his wife was more identified with the fair than he was. A feminist herself, an ardent supporter of Jane Addams’s Hull House, she knew from her feminist friends how women had been lied to at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia—promised a building of their own, then denied it after they had raised money for the general celebration. She knew, as well, that the Women’s Committee was mistreated at the Paris Exposition of 1889. She would not let that happen in Chicago.

As soon as planning began for the Exposition, she went abroad to organize international delegations to the women’s exhibition. Canceling this would cause international embarrassment. She organized the bodies that commissioned a woman architect for the Women’s Building, authorized two murals by women (one of them Mary Cassatt), and found women sculptors to ornament the structure.11 She was the work horse for the women’s exhibit at the same time she was playing hostess to its most glittering events. This was the woman who held meetings of trade unionists in the house better known for the banquets attended by her husband’s union-hating millionaires. The Pullman strike ended her formerly close friendship with George Pullman.12


None of this could redeem Mrs. Palmer in Veblen’s eyes. She was one of the rich Chicagoans his own university’s president wooed so fulsomely. Rockefeller had put up money on the condition that local supporters match it. This meant that the very machicolations above Veblen’s head were examples of conspicuous consumption paid for by Chicago’s Captains of Solvency—Veblen’s term for the financiers who replaced earlier Captains of Industry, the wealthy people who had done something productive. The founding president of the University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper, embodied everything Veblen could not abide. He was an uplifter, a dogooder, a promoter, an ordained veteran of the Chautauqua circuit (where he was a boy-wonder orator). Harper had persuaded Rockefeller to give money to a research university—as opposed to the scattered Baptist schools that first appealed to Rockefeller’s conscience—on the grounds that a university in Chicago would be a greater force for social improvement than would lesser efforts in small towns.

In Harper’s honor, Veblen invented a new category, Captains of Erudition, knowledge-promoters who treat academic honors as trophies of a subtler predation. Veblen wrote about Harper and all his works while at Chicago, but he did not publish the result, Higher Learning in America, until 1918, when he was safely far away. Veblen’s colleague in the English department, the novelist Robert Herrick, imitated his discretion. Herrick had come to the university a year after Veblen, but he stayed on till 1923, so he did not publish his scathing novel about the university’s founding, Chimes, till 1926. Herrick’s targets are by and large Veblen’s—school sports, the university’s community-reform efforts and involvement in local politics, the invasion of professors’ private lives, the corruption of science by pursuit of local funds, the plight of those seeking the truth while “cast up in the midst of a rich city whose only standard of rank was wealth.”13 The villains of the book believe that the goal of a university is “to attract students by athletics and fraternity houses, who hope to mount from one social stratum to a little higher one, thanks to their college associations.

Herrick’s picture of Harper is mellower than Veblen’s. Writing after Harper’s death, Herrick saw a pathos in the man’s continual pursuit of funds from benefactors who misunderstood him. Harper gets no such mercy from Veblen. The bubbly enthusiast who wants to educate the community with extension courses is considered a traitor to the research ideals he had professed. Veblen took an austere view of the university, as a place where the instinct of workmanship is used to find truth. Teaching is an interference with this pursuit. The instruction of benefactors’ children is less a matter of opening their minds than of improving their prospects. Grade inflation Veblen considered a necessary result of this futile exercise:

The exactions of the credit system must not be enforced in so inflexible a spirit as to estrange that much-desired contingent of genteel students whose need for an honourable discharge is greater than their love of knowledge.14

“Student activities” turn the academy into a recreation park, where genteel misbehavior is “sheltered from the importunities of the municipal police,” and university energy is devoted to “the elaboration of the puerile irregularities of adolescence.” Sports develop a predatory instinct that will be carried into the business world.

The president of such a place hawks his wares in a manner that guarantees “that the substance must not be allowed to stand in the way of the shadow,” and he dances ghoulish attendance on rich valetudinarians or their widows (“the relicts of the wealthy dead”). Administrative tasks insure that “the collective wisdom of the faculty is bent on its own stultification.” The Captain of Erudition appoints “adroit parliamentarians competent to procure the necessary modicum of sanction, for all arbitrary acts of the executive, from a distrustful faculty convened as a deliberative body.” Vocational training is imparted by failures in the relevant vocations. Schools of commerce and law are taught by men who could make more money if engaged directly in commerce or the law.15 Presidents of such colleges are the worst things in them—and Veblen must have cringed when Harper boasted that he hired nine college presidents to serve on his early faculty.16

Veblen’s and Herrick’s grumblings surprise some people, who look back on the early days of Harper’s university as a miraculous meeting of talents. After all, Harper had not only hired Veblen and Herrick, but John Dewey and George Herbert Mead in the philosophy department. One of the despised former college presidents, Albion Small, set up the nation’s first graduate department in sociology, a department that would for many years be the most famous and successful of the university’s innovations.

But it was Harper’s very openness to every kind of education that disgruntled members of his faculty. Some of them had been wooed with the promise that they could initiate their own pet projects; but these often fell victim to other schemes jostling for space. There was an overload of ambitious plans, which reached beyond even Harper’s prodigious money-raising power. The ambition to run an educational supermarket can be seen in Harper’s plan to have a faculty functioning on twelve different levels: scholar, fellow, lecturer, reader, docent, tutor, instructor, assistant professor, associate professor, non-resident professor, professor, head professor (the latter a life-tenure head of a department).17 These ranks would service a dizzying combination of educational projects—night school, correspondence school, extension courses, visiting programs, undergraduate instruction at outlying campuses. No wonder Veblen thought he had joined a circus.

Yet it was the university’s “outreach” that gave it its distinctive character. While Veblen was studying the rich, Small’s fledgling sociology department was studying the poor. And people from other departments—including Dewey and Mead—followed the sociologists into Hull House and other settlement projects. Harper’s ideal of community service let Dewey set up his experimental schools—though the competition at such projects later drove Dewey to Columbia.18 Jane Addams had pioneered a form of demographic research and social survey, in her Hull-House Maps and Papers (1893), which the university sociologists were happy to build upon.19

Addams had opened her settlement house with a conviction that people should go to the subcultures of Chicago more to learn than to admonish or correct. The people who need redemption are those who have kept themselves ignorant of their own city’s conditions. Carter Harrison used his ward heelers to avoid contaminating contact with the poor. Jane Addams went around the Hinky Dinks to see for herself the “facts of life” at the bottom of the social hierarchy. In her famous lecture, “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements,” delivered (the year of the university’s founding) at a summer school of Ethical Cultural Societies in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Addams said there were three reasons for settlement houses to be founded.

  1. To make democracy real. Social exclusion of part of society, along with fake political inclusion (the manipulated votes of the political machine), deprives us all of the democracy we claim to want. If the powerful in society avoid the powerless, “The men who lose most are those who thus stay away.”20
  2. To share in the greatest effort of humanity—the struggle to live. Even the rich have “race memories,” as she puts it, of their own earlier participation in that noble effort. By suppressing those memories, people cut themselves off from their own heroic past. Addams had, in her pampered youth, felt dead, living in pale literary reflections of the human struggle at its most invigorating. She compared this to the adult forgetfulness of childhood’s vivid apprehensions and aspirations. The rich are not the celebrants of prowess, as Veblen thought; they are dim simulacra of men with real prowess, those who face deprivation and death.
  3. To rescue Christianity. Christianity dies apart from its contact with the poor; so Christians who separate themselves from the poor are depriving themselves of their very own cherished creed.

Every part of that program appealed to Albion Small. Like most college presidents of the day—like Harper himself—he was an ordained minister. He saw no conflict between Christian and pedagogical ambitions. Not many in his sociology department shared his assumptions; but all of them found something in the Addams program they could share and develop. Where others came to judge the poor, the Chicago sociologists came to understand. They found immigrants not deviant because of inferiority, but “socially disorganized” (to use a phrase they made famous) by the transition from peasant communities abroad to the urban confusion of a new world. This disorganization could be creative, forcing a new set of rational choices on people who had been the victims of repressive tradition.

Some criticized the Chicago sociologists for being too understanding of delinquency. William I. Thomas, for instance, studied “unadjusted girls” and found an understandable resentment at their exclusion from opportunities given boys. But his understanding was used against him when he was caught with a married woman in a downtown hotel.21 Clarence Darrow defended him successfully in court against charges of violating the Mann Act, but the university fired Thomas. This did not prevent the completion of his great work, the five-volume study (with Florian Znaniecki) of The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918–1920), widely considered the founding document of urban sociology in America. Thomas had worked closely with Hull House, one of whose principal benefactors, Helen Culver, subsidized his research.22

The work of the Chicago sociologists became such a part of life in ethnic neighborhoods that when, in 1927, Richard Wright came to Chicago from the Deep South, his family’s case worker introduced the bright young man to her husband, Louis Wirth, a professor in the sociology department, and Wright was soon making sense of the black neighborhood around him by reading the efforts of the professors to make sense of it:

I ran through volumes that bore upon the causes of my conduct and the conduct of my family. I studied tables of figures relating population density to insanity, relating housing to disease, relating school and recreational opportunities to crime, relating various forms of neurotic behavior to environment, relating racial insecurities to the conflicts between whites and blacks.23

Carla Cappetti has made a convincing case, in Writing Chicago, that Wright, along with Nelson Algren and James Farrell, drew on the Chicago sociologists not only for information but to formulate reportorial goals as the novelists of urban crisis.

When Wright saw causal relationships between conditions and behavior, the hope of controlling his environment grew in him. Life was not mere chaos, it was explicable “social disorganization.” The reform prospect could not be entirely lost in the effort just to study (as Veblen claimed of his work on the predatory rich), just to understand (as Thomas claimed of his work on displaced Polish peasants). The do-goodism of Rockefeller and Harper was too deep in the university’s ethos to be expelled soon—or, perhaps, ever.

And no wonder. The university was born at a time of extraordinary civic confidence. It grew up simultaneously with the White City of the Exposition. Cobb, the university’s architect, was also a planner and executor of designs in the Exposition. In fact, the best early pictures of the university were taken from the top of the Ferris Wheel on the Exposition’s midway. The midway became the “front lawn” of the university when the White City was torn down. So close were the two in people’s minds that the university was called the Gray City, a term that lives on in the school’s official song,

The City White hath fled the earth,
But where the azure waters lie
A nobler city hath its birth—The City Gray, that ne’er shall die.

(The City Gray took on a new resonance when Hanna Gray became the university’s president.)


The Gray City rose almost as rapidly as the White City.24 It was as symmetrically planned, an enclosed ideal community. The Exposition was centered on the Court of Honor, the university on its Quadrangle—both landscaped by the Olmsted firm. The two cities shared more than an architect. Given President Harper’s missionary/imperial urges, it is no surprise that he instituted an extension course on art at the Fair, conducted by sculptor Lorado Taft.25

The Gray City of the university was very consciously intended to mediate between the ideals of the Exposition’s White City and the grim realities of the downtown’s Black City. The color terms are more important than they might seem. We have to make a conscious effort at historic reconstruction to understand why the White City was white. It was not just the planners’ decision to paint the artificial “staff” façades that made it white. The Exposition was not a working city. It had no factories or heating units. Those who opened it formally, in October of 1892, shivered in the unheated Hall of Manufacturers (four city blocks long). The actual opening did not come till spring arrived in 1894, and the show closed in the fall. The spectacle of white buildings by the sparkling blue lake was breathtaking, especially since all major industrial cities of the nineteenth century toiled in a mid-day darkness of their own making. Softcoal heating, factories, railroad propulsion, steamboats and steam lifts along the clogged river smudged the new towers of Chicago as soon as they went up. The heavy curtains and sealed rooms of Victorian town houses were fortification to repel a besieging grime.

This is what kept Londoners so enchanted with Venice—the city that heated itself with wood in its short winters, and moved its visitors about by the human propulsion of gondolas. Its bright skies, brought back to London by Turner, were miracles of city dazzle not replicable at home. In the same way, the White City on Lake Michigan could not be moved up the shore to replace the Black City on the Chicago River. But the university was a partial prolongation of the Exposition’s shimmering conditions. Though the Gray City had a heating plant, it lacked manufactures, railroad stations, river landings—all the things that fouled the buildings in the Loop. It shared the site of the Exposition, far from downtown, and it helped promote the ideal of planned suburban life, where islands of grass reduced the density of population.

The lingering dream of the White City lay behind Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago, published in 1909, which has been reissued in beautiful facsimile by Princeton Architectural Press, complete with photographs, tinted fold-out plans, and the visionary paintings of Jules Guerin. The Guerin paintings recall the painted views of the Exposition.26

Burnham’s plan was astoundingly ambitious, as he admitted. But he pointed to other “impossible” achievements in Chicago’s past—the raising of the whole town’s grade level, the Exposition itself. He said that circumstances would force large changes in any event. A grudging and piecemeal acceptance of change would be at least as costly, in the long run, as planned alteration of the city, and the results would be aesthetically disastrous.

Burnham was ruthless in his determination to raze obstacles to his project. Responsible himself for some of the buildings in which the city took pride, he said they must all be treated as dispensable:

Chicago, being a comparatively new city, escapes one difficulty experienced in the re-formation of cities of the Old World; here there are no buildings possessing either historical or picturesque value which must be sacrificed in order to carry out the plans necessary to provide circulation for a growing metropolis.

Even the Art Institute, just fifteen years old, would have to be sacrificed to a widening of Michigan Avenue. Burnham meant to drive huge thoroughfares through the congested city, broadening them out into gardens and parks, letting air and light into all the darkened canyons caused by skyscrapers and crowded tenements. If public money had to be used for relocating people, well, London proved that could be done.

Though his own reputation had been established with skyscrapers, he said that Chicago must break itself of that costly taste. He deplored “the former days when each architect strove to build his cornice higher or more elaborate than the adjoining cornice,” and recalled Chicago to the genius of its place—to the aesthetics of a flat lake and flat prairie, achieving sublimity by long uninterrupted views toward the horizon.

Chicago has two dominant natural features: the expanse of Lake Michigan, which stretches, unbroken by islands or peninsulas, to the horizon; and a corresponding area of land extending north, west, and south without hills or any marked elevation. These two features, each immeasurable by the senses, give the scale…. Other cities may climb hills and build around them, crowning the elevations with some dominating structure; but the people of Chicago must ever recognize the fact that their city is without bounds or limits…. Always there must be the feeling of those broad surfaces of water reflecting the clouds of heaven, always the sense of breadth and freedom which are the very spirit of the prairies.27

That last sentence shows that Frank Lloyd Wright’s early aesthetic of the horizontal was not peculiar to him in turn-of-the-century Chicago.

Burnham meant to aerate the Loop with two huge avenues, one as wide as a football field is long, the other almost as wide. The first would lie east-west along a reconstructed Congress Street, crossing the South Branch (incidentally clearing out all the dives and wharf-rats over which Bathhouse and Hink presided in 1909), leading to a civic center that would carry the city’s action outside the Loop. The other broad lane, a raised Michigan Avenue, under which intersecting streets must run, could turn its lakeside position into “one of the most magnificent highways of the world.”

Though the Burnham Plan was not carried out, its broad outlines have haunted the dreams of all the city’s planners, and many isolated improvements have won acceptance by appeal to this or that aspect of the plan. What is best about Chicago—its preservation of the lakefront, its parks, its traffic arteries out from and around the city—reflect the priorities Burnham established.

Above all Burnham wanted to take the blackness out of the Black City—by diverting much train traffic, by converting to electric trains, by clearing the river front of its coal-gorging equipment. If he could not make a White City, he would make a Green and Blue one, dominated by parks and the lake. His aim was artistic as well as sanitary. The City Beautiful movement set as one civic goal the aesthetic satisfaction of its citizens. Burnham appealed to “the deeper sense in man of the value of delightful surroundings.” The citizen who enjoys a city keeps it clean and improves it. Public spirit grows with public enjoyment. Burnham wanted large places of assembly, for both spectacle and political activity.

There are times when men gather in the streets for patriotic purposes, as on the Fourth of July and Decoration Day; or because of an eager desire to learn the news of great events, like election results. The right of the people to assemble for discussion is fundamental. All these requirements must be met by the creation of open spaces.

Burnham’s Plan has often been attacked as elitist, since its parks and civic places seem destined for use by the better-off. But the plan has many earthier features of slum clearance, cheap housing, and public facilities for the indigent. The plan clearly states that “we now regard the promotion of robust health of body and mind as necessary public duties.” Kristin Shaffer, in her introduction to the facsimile, shows that there were even more reformist details in Burnham’s draft of the plan, spelling out provisions for public schools, foundling homes, even day care centers.

But the notion that aesthetic arguments were meant only for an elite is not one Burnham would have understood. Most reformers of the period were certain that the poor respond to aesthetic values as much as anyone else. Music, poetry, and art exhibits were always part of Jane Addams’s program. Neighborhood kids who studied and played music at Hull House included jazz artists Benny Goodman and Art Hodes.28 She and others had been deeply affected by William Morris’s concept of trade unions as restoring creativity to the workman. Ellen Starr, the co-founder of Hull House, went to England to study the art of fine book-making, and opened a bookbindery at Hull House. Julia Lathrop ran a Plato study club.

It may seem naive to us that Jane Addams hoped to instill pride in Greek immigrants by having them perform the ancient tragedies of Athens, or in Jewish children by having them act out stories from the Old Testament. But her ability to use art to good political effect is demonstrated in her famous lecture, “A Modern Lear,” devoted to the Pullman strike. Pullman, angered that the workers in his model village could rebel, was like Lear insisting that Cordelia show her love in the way he demands.

That a man should be so absorbed in his own indignation as to fail to apprehend his child’s thought, that he should lose his affection in his anger, is really no more unnatural than that the man who spent a million dollars on a swamp to make it sanitary for his employees should refuse to speak to them for ten minutes.29

Lear’s egotistical obsession with all the things he has done for his daughters is made the pattern of the modern philanthropist’s egotism. Her description of Pullman’s benefactions reveals, implicitly, how different were Addams’s goals and procedures at Hull House:

The president of the Pullman company thought out within his own mind a beautiful town. He had power with which to build this town, but he did not appeal to nor obtain the consent of the men who were living in it. The most unambitious reform, recognizing the necessity for this consent, makes for slow but sane and strenuous progress, while the most ambitious of social plans and experiments, ignoring this, is prone to the failure of the model town of Pullman.

The man who insists upon consent, who moves with the people, is bound to consult the feasible right as well as the absolute right. He is often obliged to attain only Mr. Lincoln’s “best possible,” and often have the sickening sense of compromising with his best convictions. He has to move along with those whom he rules toward a goal that neither he nor they see very clearly till they come to it. He has to discover what people really want.30

“A Modern Lear,” said John Dewey, is “one of the greatest things I ever read both as to its form and its ethical philosophy.”31 Dewey, who used some of Addams’s techniques for children’s music and theatricals in his experimental schools, named his daughter Jane in Addam’s honor.

If Addams keeps popping up in this review, it is because she kept doing that in all aspects of Chicago life. She is the greatest single figure in the city’s history—not only the city’s conscience, but its needed support in crisis after crisis. Whenever there was union trouble, racial strife, wrongs done to immigrants, people turned for guidance to her. Burnham consulted her when drawing up his plan—she especially urged him to keep the lakefront free from wealthy mansions, so the poor would have access to it.32 She was aided by a very gifted set of helpers and friends, men and (especially) women with their own talents and strong temperaments—which makes all the more astounding their recognition of her leadership. Partly this came from her ability to learn from those who supported her, her undogmatic approach to problems, her willingness to change—which made her more radical as time went on, less fixed in earlier solutions she might have clung to with proprietary fondness.33


Given their dates, and their roles in Chicago, one expects Addams and Frank Lloyd Wright to cross paths. The expectation is dramatically exceeded. The Welsh relative who had greater influence on Wright than anyone but his mother was the liberal Unitarian preacher, Jenkin Lloyd Jones, Wright’s “Uncle Jenk,” who became a surrogate father to him after his own father’s defection.34 Jones was one of Addams’s principal allies, a regular presence at Hull House. Wright met her at his uncle’s dinner table, and was frequently at Hull House himself, where his mother and first wife did volunteer work. He gave one of his most important early lectures there, in 1901, pleading with Morrisites like Ellen Starr not to reject machinery in their regard for handmade arts and crafts:

[William Morris] did the best in his time for art and will live in history as the great sociologist, together with Ruskin the great moralist: significant fact worth thinking about, that the two great reformers of modern times professed the artist.35

The example of Hull House as a moral force and art center combined, its disciplined use of aesthetic value to shape others’ lives, contributed to Wright’s ideal for his Taliesin centers. He was as energetic a moralizer, in his own line, as Addams herself. His didactic impulse, later channeled mainly into his “preaching,” where he became a Jenkin Lloyd Jones of the art world, was blatant in some early buildings, where he put slogans on inner and outer walls. His home in Oak Park had “sayings” over the hearth, and in the workroom, like samplers built into the fabric itself. His first wife tried to discourage this labeling of his constructs, but the worker admonishments in the Larkin Building seem like messages from Big Brother, and the latitudinarian creed over the entry to Unity Temple is a kind of liberal shibboleth.

It has often been noticed that Wright’s early homes “preached” domesticity—the sacredness of the hearth, the intimacy of ingle nooks, the privacy-denying flow of the larger spaces into each other. Addams, too, thought the strength of the immigrants came from the family, threatened by urban conditions and public schools that belittled ethnic identity.36

But Wright’s social vision was not confined to domesticity. He took in many reformers’ ideals, from all the do-gooder organizations where Jenkin Lloyd Jones was a tireless uplifter and visionary. As Gwendolyn Wright says in her essay in the catalog of the recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art: “Nowhere in America did progressive reform find such support as in Chicago’s civic clubs, schools, universities, and settlement houses—all places Wright frequented at the time.”37 His turn to the suburbs reflected the “next stage” in city growth that Burnham’s plan stood for. Burnham knew that city congestion could be broken up only if the urbanites were attracted out to easily reached suburbs, so he provided for broad roads radiating from the city like spokes, to be connected with rimroads. And as vertical competitiveness had to be tamed in the city, horizontal crowding would have to be controlled in the suburbs. The plan did its own preaching. Burnham wrote:

Too often, however, the suburb is laid out by the speculative real estate agent who exerts himself to make every dollar invested turn into as many dollars as possible. Human ingenuity contrives to crowd the maximum number of building lots into the minimum space; if native trees exist on the land they are ruthlessly sacrificed. Then the speculative builder takes matters in hand and in a few months the narrow, grassless streets are lined with rows of cheaply constructed dwellings, and with ugly apartment houses occupying the more desirable sites. In ten years or less the dwellings are dropping to pieces; and the apartment houses, having lost their newness, become rookeries.

Wright’s suburban houses look as if constructed to embody Burnham’s values. They stand apart, commanding their own space, integrated into the landscape. The houses either grip the earth or float possessively over it. Wright would later call his utopian city plan Broadacre, since each house stood on a lot an acre broad. He could as well have called it Burnhamville.

But Wright did not just declare the owner’s independence in these houses. He worked for well-to-do patrons, yet he kept the prerogative of lecturing and reforming them by the mere process of channeling their lives through his disciplined space. Wright told them what they could and could not do. They could not have their own pictures on walls, which already held just the appropriate (and the appropriate amount of) ornament. If samplers were to be admitted, they would be his, and would be of the house, not just in it. The owners could not block windows with furniture—he made it impossible to place it near his unbroken expanses of light, using windowseats or heating cabinets or other devices to keep his viewing areas inviolate. The owners had to stay together—he even designed dining tables with high corner lamps so those seated had to lean in toward each other, sealing themselves off from the rest of the world.

Wright’s patrons could not have superfluous possessions. There was no place to store them. Wright could be as harsh as Veblen on the competitive wastefulness of the leisure class:

One is tempted to remark upon the amount of “Marshall Field” each fashionable woman carries about on her person or drags after her by the hand, if she has children. It is alone an occupation; a feverish, unhappy competitive quest; a blight; an undemocratic folly. One beautiful dress, really individual and becoming, one hat that suits the face, and both together sympathetic to the wearer, are worth all the fashionable changes in the shops.38

In the same way, one spare set of furnishings (supplied, indeed decreed, by Wright) should replace a family’s accumulated paraphernalia. It must all be jettisoned before boarding Wright’s vessel, headed out from the static past.

Wright was proud of the fact that his Robie House, next to the University of Chicago campus, was called a steamship (Dampfer) by his German fans. The second owner bought the house because its interior reminded him of his yacht.39 Standing inside the saloonlike living room, I found a different image pushing at my mind. The identical rows of windows on either side, the long arrangement of chairs, the lamps stationed across from each other down the line of the room—it looks like one of the old semiluxurious smoking cars on a train. This is not as demeaning a comparison as it seems. Private railway cars were, at that time, symbols of status, much as private jets are now. Designers created special interiors for the wealthy. The relationship of everything in the car to the exigencies of its particular space made this a perfect arena for arts-and-crafts designers of a total environment—see the stunning dining car designed in 1914 by August Endell.40

The private car no doubt appealed to Wright—one suspects he would have bolted his furniture to the floor, like railroad chairs, if his patrons had let him get away with it. A spare and inevitable arrangement was his aim, an elimination of the superfluous like the limiting of luggage for a trip. The consignment of operating necessities to discretely invisible parts of the house is like the separation of the porters’ area from the private car. Wright likes to hide his bathrooms—as in the Guggenheim Museum, where they are crammed into columns.

Wright was as good as any of his Victorian predecessors at making the ministrations of servants in his rich men’s homes almost invisible. It is instructive to look at H.H. Richardson’s great Chicago house, built in 1885–1887 for John Jacob Glessner. This has a service corridor running along one side of the building, a recurrent feature in Wright’s houses. A beautiful set of photographs of the Glessner House, published by Wasmuth (the German firm closely connected with Wright’s career) shows other features that Wright made his own—the almost furtive entrance off the main axis, the use of several levels to reach the living area, the flow of that area around both sides of a central hearth, a gallery over the entry (as in Wright’s Dana House), a “blind side” to the building and an open side full of windows (including an octagonal glass solarium). Richardson was the great influence on Wright’s own master, Louis Sullivan, who based his Auditorium Building on Richardson’s Marshall Field store. It is clear that Wright had learned some things from Richardson as well.

If Wright regulated the use of private houses, he made his offices a control-freak’s dream. There is an element of the Panopticon to the Larkin Building in Buffalo and the Johnson’s Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin. All the workers in their uniform rows are exposed to the gaze of those on high, while their own view is cut off by windowless areas. Pictures of workers in the Larkin atrium and mail room show them perfectly aligned, in rows almost unbelievably straight.41 The only elements that partially escape control are the free-standing waste baskets at each desk—and he solved that problem in the Johnson Wax Building. There the waste basket is hooked to the side of the desk, under its formica surface, where it is invisible to the worker—she must perfect a contortionist’s leaning movement in order to deposit waste in the basket, still without seeing it. Here the vision of Hull House fades and is replaced by something darker from Wright’s Chicago past—Pullman Village.

Though Wright put his Robie House on the edge of Cobb’s Gothic University, as if anchoring a sleek modern ship under the walls of an ancient castle, he proved surprisingly accommodating to the university when he put up his Midway Gardens in the same neighborhood. This outdoor café and concert hall, demolished in 1929, is Wright’s surprising tribute to Gothic style—as one can see from Anthony Alofsin’s juxtaposition of Wright’s statues with medieval cathedral sculpture.42 The pinnacles and fleche-like spires that rise from every part of the structure are marshaled around the twin towers that dominate it. The playfulness of the design echoes the circus-like Midway at the Exposition, on a part of whose ground Wright’s building stood. Midway Gardens extended a kind of mocking forgiveness to the Gothic University, as if laying Veblen’s ghost.

As one came near the end of the great Wright retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, one was faced with the twelve-foot-high drawing of Wright’s visionary skyscraper plan, the Mile High Illinois. On the drawing, running down the side of the tower, like temperature marks next to a thermometer, is a list of the great builders and engineers to which the proposal pays tribute. At the top of the list is “Louis Sullivan, son of Chicago,” and at the bottom is the author of the tribute, “Frank Lloyd Wright, son of Chicago.” He deserved the title. He combined elements of Jenkin Lloyd Jones’s preachiness, of Jane Addams’s reforming moralism, of Veblen’s social satire, and of Burnham’s visionary ambition. A wayward son at times, he was always, as he boasted, a son of Chicago.

This Issue

June 9, 1994