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San Francisco Civic Plan

Prepared by Daniel Burnham, assisted by Willis Polk and Henry Gutterson

    This is an excerpt from the Senior Action Committee’s report on Planning for the 21st Century in Washington State, which was presented at the Chapter conference in Yakima, Washington, October 2000.


    The first two decades of the 20th Century were known as the Progressive Era. The reform movement gradually shifted from elitist paternalism-the idea that the best men should rule-to bureaucratic control-the idea that experts and specialized agencies should determine social, political, and economic policies. This confused the independence of experts and bureaucrats with neutrality, when in fact bureaucracies have become as self-serving as the machines the reformers wished to replace. In the East, the reform-bent journalists included Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Upton Sinclair. Teddy Roosevelt called them "muckrakers."

    Senator James McMillan of Michigan prepared a resolution requiring his committee to prepare plans for an entire park system for the District of Columbia. However, it resulted in a much broader plan and extended beyond the areas of the original L’Enfant plan. A team composed of Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., Charles McKim, and the sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens was retained and notable improvements included Burnham’s Union Station (now the visitors’ center) which required the tunneling of the Pennsylvania RR under the mall in front of the capitol. The plan, of 1901 and the grand plan commenced by L’Enfant upon which it was built, of course did not anticipate motor travel. In spite of this, it has revivified L’Enfant’s intentions and "Monumental Washington," - the Mall and governmental complex of structures - has faithfully brought a capital appropriate for the most important country in the world and certainly deserving of George Washington’s most farseeing expectations.

    In San Francisco, Daniel Burnham was charged to design a plan for the entire city in 1904, not for parks and a civic center only. At the time, only half of the area of the city was developed. The private Association for the Improvement and Adornment of San Francisco, led by former mayor James Phelan, financed it. Burnham charged nothing for his own time, but he insisted on a free hand in putting his ideas for the future of the city to paper. For the first time civic organizations met in neighborhoods to offer advice, and thereby created a great diversity of involvement. The team of Daniel Burnham, Edward Bennett, together with local architects Willis Polk and Henry Gutterson set up their quarters in a bungalow on Twin Peaks, Burnham’s "eagle’s nest." He greatly believed, at a time before aerial photography and remote sensing, in what another such believer, Geddes in Scotland, lauded as the "synoptic overview" from a topographic highpoint or taller building. Burnham’s plan traversed the hilly city already beset by its rigid gridiron street pattern with numerous radial arteries. Much more land was designated as parks. One page shows a principal source of Burnham inspiration: "Theoretical Diagram of the Plan of Paris." And there is a sense of zoned uses. And also an intention to preserve views in development and also care and attention to protecting and displaying topographic features. There was to be impressive public buildings, monumental fountains, ornamental balustrades, round points (traffic circles) "rapid underground transit," centers of expansion into the then barren areas southward.

Daniel Burnham Report

Inside Cover:    Willis Polk's copy of Burnham's SF Plan survived the quake and fire on April 18,1906. Copies of the published report (nicely engraved and printed by the Sunset Press of San Francisco) were delivered to City Hall only a few days before the quake.

    The Burnham report (in an addendum by Phelan) was perhaps the first to publish the term "comprehensive planning" somewhat as we now use it. The earthquake and fire followed on the Tuesday after the report was delivered to city hall on Saturday. What might have been a great opportunity for completely re-planning the city was bypassed in the press to re-establish commerce and daily life. Like Christopher Wren’s and John Evelyn’s desires to re-plot inner London after the great fire in 1689, such was not to be. In their earlier histories many cities have had consuming conflagrations. Though the three dimensional place may have gone up in smoke, enduring private ownerships of land are too forceful and enduring usually to allow any serious reconfiguring on the ground. Seattle after the fire of 1889 was no exception, although there was regrading in streets downtown (the present Pioneer Square area). Despite the seeming disregard for Burnham’s plan, it was a most important resource for civic projects in three decades that followed and in the formulation of San Francisco’s official comprehensive plan after World War II.

    James Phelan in San Francisco was a rich man, a philanthropist, whose benefactions directly related to planning. In Chicago one of the early philanthropical players in the conservation game was William Kent. He provided the site for Chicago’s first playground in 1903. He operated on a broad scale. Later Kent also donated the virgin woodland in Marin County, Northern California for Muir Woods National Monument, and the land for Kent Woodlands and Seadowns on the Pacific beach.

    View the entire   Senior Action Committee’s report

    Copyright by Senior Action Committee, Washington Chapter, of the American Planning Association, 2000.

    Permission to copy in whole or in part is freely granted with attribution as follows:
    Senior Action Committee, 21st Century Report, 2000

    All republication in print or by electronic means in multiple copies must be attributed.

Last updated 07-21-2004

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