#376: The Brennan Plan of 1908 vs. Me

September 22nd, 2014

I’m up well into the a.m., I smell like stale sweat and I blame amateur urban planner Edward Paul Brennan (1866-1942).

The Card

The story starts with my mom, who sent me a card with an old-timey reprint of an 1890 ad for a bike manufacturer. The card listed a branch house (think factory-owned dealership) in Chicago.

“Hi – you should check out 291 Wabash Ave – see if there’s any trace of Pope Mfg Co.,” my mom wrote, before getting into topics of apple orchards, gift certificates and other mom-type stuff.

On Sunday afternoon, I started thinking about it. Good call, Mom.

Several hours and 40 or so browser tabs of online research into Chicago’s bike history later, I was bundled in chemical-made wicking fabric, pedaling my own bike through a black night to 291 Wabash and thence to 311 W. Division, where the “Columbia Wheelmen” had their clubhouse.

“Which Wabash?” I wondered as the 80th pothole rattled me in the dark.

The Wabashes

If the address referred to 291 S. Wabash, the old branch house was somewhere on the footprint of what’s now DePaul’s College of Computing and Digital Media Center.

If it meant 291 N. Wabash, this odd and wonderful bit of Chicagoana was underneath Donald Trump’s gaudy downtown glitz-monster hotel.

“Please be south,” I thought, horrified by tramp-stamp thoughts of big signs and hairpieces.

Once home with notes and photos from the Division Street clubhouse and both potential 291s, I hopped on Twitter to pick historian brains.

“N of River, Wabash was Cass; but that number could be N of Madison. See CHM website for address conversion document.” NU Professor Bill Savage responded.

Conversion document?

I headed to the Chicago History Museum site.

All the city streets had been renumbered in 1909, some by miles. I had been nowhere near the right spot for any of my trips.

It was 10 at night and I had no story for the morning.

Effing Edward Paul Brennan (1866-1942)

Hungry, Hungry

Due in large part to an 1889-1893 gobbling of nearby suburbs like Lake, Jefferson, Lake View and Hyde Park, Chicago’s street numbers were a mess in 1901.

The North Side, South Side and West Side each had their own numbering system. Numbering started (or, in some cases, finished) along the winding, turning, three-branched river, leading to such fun as two intersections called 42nd and Lake, one on the South Side, one on the West.

Then there were the extra names. As one example of many, the street just west of Halsted, which is now Green Street south of the river’s north branch and Dayton to the north, was also Green Street and Dayton Street then. It was also called Lime Street, Florence Avenue, Craft Street, Reta Avenue or Newberry Avenue at different points. (A sliver of Reta Street still exists in Lakeview and two of Newberry Avenue on the UIC campus.)

Then there were the duplicate names. Again picking a few of many examples, there were nine Sheridan Streets, 10 Oak Streets and – by various tellings – 12, 13 or 14 streets named Washington.

All this would be fixed by Edward Paul Brennan, professional nobody.

The Nobody

Brennan was a guy who worked downtown and who went on vacation to Michigan with a whole bunch of maps and came back with a completely new plan for the city. He wrote the Chicago Record Herald about his ideas in 1901. Seven years and one alderman cousin later, random guy’s plans became law.

Everything that makes it easy to get around Chicago was from Brennan. Street numbers radiating from State and Madison – that was him. Odd numbers on the east and south sides of the streets, evens on the west and north – that was Brennan too.

Not all his plans came to fruition – he wanted every 1,000 addresses to be one mile, not 800 like the city ended up doing. He also wanted an alphabetical naming convention that, for some reason, he started at K. It gave us K-Town (Keystone, Karlov, Kedvale, Keeler, Kenneth, Kilbourn, Kildare, Kolin, Kolmar, Komensky, Kostner, Kilpatrick, Kenton, Knox and Keating), but tapered off after O.

Aside from a few setbacks like that, this random man rewrote the city.

Brennan didn’t get a dime for the 600 lobbying trips to City Hall over 35 years, the more than 1,000 extraneous street names he got rid of and the 130-300 streets he personally renamed. The order he created was his reward.

The renumbering took effect for most of the city in 1909 and for the Loop in 1911.

The Fallout

Luckily, a few past “What’s there now?” stories of mine (the Dill Pickle Club, the king of South Side barbecue and my murderous neighbor Wanda Stopa) were based on post-1909/1911 street numbers, so E.P. Brennan and his cruel dedication to rational street numbering didn’t mess me up there.

The research was fascinating. Plus, I got to see Rick Kogan cannibalize bits of a 2003 story of his for a 2011 redo. (“With no training but an agile mind” indeed, Mr. Kogan.)

But, beyond the confusion averted, manpower spared and other ways the Brennan Plan of 1908 continues to make lives better on a daily basis more than a century later, I’m going to be tired at work today.

And you’re going to have to wait, like, a week or so to learn about the bike shop on the card my mom sent me.

That’s because of Edward Paul Brennan (1866-1942), amateur urban planner, rewriter of roads and, as I’ll no doubt blearily mumble to humming, fluorescent office lights in a few hours, history’s greatest monster.

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