The unsung hero of urban planning who made it easy to get around Chicago
Editor's note: This was piece was produced in collaboration with the Chicago Architecture Foundation, which provided research, expertise and other assistance during its development.
Jessica Fisch and Paul Toben are engaged to be married this fall. But before the two new arrivals to Chicago start a new life in a new home, they want to solve a mystery with roots in the city’s early history.
Toben and Fisch bought a house in the Edgewater neighborhood last year, and they’ve been fixing it up since. But they discovered something odd about the address displayed on their siding.
“It was underneath the vinyl siding that was here before and it shows our current house number, which is very visible,” says Toben, pointing to metal numbers nailed into the wood slat. It spells out 1761. “But then two boards below, there's a sort of ghosted, painted-over paint.”
That number, barely visible in the 110-year-old wood, reads 615.
“We want to know when we went from 615 to 1761,” says Fisch. She and Toben asked Curious City:
“Where did the old number come from? When and why did they renumber the streets?”
Fisch and Toben aren’t the only Chicagoans with two house numbers — in fact, any building in the city built before 1909 probably had a different number than it does now.
These are the result of a massive shift in how the city handles street names and addresses. Today Chicago is known for having one of the simplest street systems of any big city in the world, with every address emanating out from a central origin point at the intersection of State & Madison Streets. It wasn’t always going to be that way, though, and many people fought the change. But Edward Paul Brennan, an unsung hero of urban planning, spent much of his life taming the navigational chaos of Chicago’s adolescence, and his legacy lives on more than a century later — even if few people know his name.
So answering the “when” of our questioners’ inquiry is easy: September 1, 1909. But to answer “why,” we need to go back to some early Chicago history, when a map of the city looked very different.
The expanding city
Chicago was booming in the late 19th century, gobbling up neighboring towns and annexing them as new neighborhoods of the city. Hundreds of thousands of European immigrants poured into the city, helping triple the city’s population between 1880 and 1910. It ballooned in both population and physical size, quadrupling in area in 1889 alone.
“That was great for those communities because they got the promise of a good infrastructure, but it also created logistical problems obviously for managing a city that size,” says Andrew Oleksiuk, secretary of the Illinois Postal History Society.
Every town that folded into Chicago, from Lake View to Hyde Park, had its own system for naming and numbering streets. Some towns counted out addresses starting from the Chicago River, while others started from Lake Michigan. Some placed even numbers on the north side of the street, others put them on the south. Some even let developers choose their own street names or numbers if there wasn’t a lot of local opposition.
Oleksiuk says the topsy-turvy numbering system contributed to mailmen’s struggle to keep up with changing tech, such as the telegraph, streetcars and a new entrant: the telephone.
“The post office really did see itself as being challenged by these new technologies,” he says. “So doing something like straightening out the numbering system and making it more efficient for mail delivery made them able to compete better in this world of new technologies.”
As city limits swallowed up existing towns, no one bothered to standardize street names and addresses. Not surprisingly, this system frustrated Colonel LeRoy D. Steward, superintendent of city delivery for the Chicago post office, who spoke at an Industrial Club meeting in April 1908.
“Chicago is suffering from improper mail delivery because of improper street arrangement. ... At present there are 125 towns within the city limits, and all have local street names and numbers. At present there are 511 streets of practically duplicate names. No one knows how many duplicate street numbers there are.”
In a later speech Steward asked: “What is the use of spending large sums in beautifying the city when one cannot find one’s way about it?”
Such critiques emerged alongside the so-called City Beautiful movement, whose proponents believed societal ills would evaporate with the development of rationally designed cities. Private groups like the City Club and the Commercial Club banded together to improve the city, promoting ideas like Daniel Burnham’s famous Plan of Chicago, which was published in 1909 — the same year Brennan’s system for rationalizing city addresses first took effect. Celebrated architects and engineers built the Loop, standardized the city’s cable car system and carved out green spaces that we still use today. But the elegance of our street system is taken for granted.
New solutions from a man with a plan
It wasn’t a postal worker or even an urban planner that smoothed out the system. It was a man named Edward Paul Brennan.
Brennan was a delivery boy for his father’s grocery store, and later a bill collector for the music company Lyon & Healy. He was so frustrated with the chaos of Chicago’s address system that in 1901 he came up with his own. But it would take him years to get it implemented.
Brennan wasn’t the first person to recognize the problem, but he was the most persistent at arguing for a solution. As early as 1879, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported on an ordinance for renumbering South Side streets based on Philadelphia’s plan, where addresses increased by 100 with every block. It didn’t pass.
“His daughter told me that when he was delivering groceries for his father. Before he was even a bill collector, he was running into this problem,” says Patrick Reardon, an author and journalist who has researched the history of Chicago’s street grid. “So this was not something that Brennan uncovered — it was what everybody lived with. It was like snow in the winter — it was just part of the nature of the city.”
But Brennan wouldn’t accept the status quo. Beginning in the 1890s he started a scrapbook, collecting newspaper articles about problems with city navigation or delays due to address confusion. Articles had headlines like “Streets in a Tangle. Visitors Lost.” One report tells about a doctor who couldn’t find a patient during a house call emergency. Brennan lobbied business leaders and newspaper editors for decades, needling them with letters that began like this one:
“Dear Sir, Do you think a city should have two streets with the same name? Do you think a city should have one street with two or three, or even ten names? You agree that such naming of streets is ridiculous and an insult to the intelligence of any city. Yet Chicago, your city, has hundreds of such streets. This confusion costs you and the other citizens of Chicago hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. …”
Like many Progressive Era activists, Brennan was motivated by the spirit of the time, devoting his life to crafting “a perfect plan for Chicago street nomenclature.”
“So let us go forward with the spirit that built the World’s Fair, correct our error and present the people of Chicago with a perfect house numbering plan,” he said in one of many letters lobbying Chicago aldermen and local business leaders.
Brennan’s plan benefitted from the grid system laid out by James Thompson’s official plat map for the city in 1830. Because of the regular spacing of Chicago’s city blocks, the continuation of the grid despite any geographic features, and the absence of curved roads, Brennan’s 1901 plan could be highly logical and mathematical. “In this way,” Brennan wrote, “the numbers will indicate the locality at a glance.”
With the help of an independent alderman named Charlie Byrne (who happened to be Brennan’s cousin) he presented his “Street Nomenclature Plan” to the City Council in 1901. It included four big ideas: All addresses would be centered around a 0,0 point at State and Madison Streets; street names would include the direction; even-numbered addresses would always be on the west and north sides of any street, with odd numbers on the east and south sides; house numbers would increase by 800 (or 8 blocks) every mile, although Brennan had originally proposed 1000 addresses per mile.
Brennan’s plan would also involve renaming many streets in order to cut confusion caused by duplication and other problems.
After his initial proposal, Brennan argued that Kinzie and State should instead be the new 0,0 baseline street, in honor of early settler John Kinzie. Alternate plans from other map enthusiasts proposed Western and Madison, because of its proximity to the geographic center of the growing city.
A new address for every house in town
After more than seven years of petitioning, the City Council passed Brennan’s house numbering plan in 1908 and it went into effect on September 1, 1909. Businesses within the Loop fought the change early on, arguing that — among other things — it would cost too much to reprint their stationery. They received an extra two years to adopt the same system as the rest of the city.
The process of converting the address of nearly every household in Chicago was a daunting task. Newspaper accounts in the days and weeks leading up to the mandatory changes indicate confusion, resignation, and also humor. City directories published maps and thick new guides that residents and businesses could purchase, listing every old address and its new equivalent. Residents sent illustrated postcards with poems or cartoons to friends, notifying them of the change.
“If you had your Aunt Matilda in Kansas who's sending you a letter, she doesn't necessarily know about the re-numbering system,” says Oleksiuk. “You have to write her a letter to tell her, ‘My new address is such and such.’ ‘Oh you moved?’ ‘No I didn't. They're just re-numbering the streets.’”
Trouble lived beyond the initial confusion, though, as some people actively fought the change.
“There were people who saw what [Brennan] was doing and what the city was doing in changing street names as meddling with the historic nature of their streets,” says Reardon. “So it was not a simple or an uncontroversial thing.”
Above: Postcards and newspaper clippings show the humor and confusion the city felt after the house number changes. Click on an image for large view.
Some residents banded together, lobbied their aldermen, and fought the city’s proposed street name changes.
Under Brennan’s plan, the tiny streets of Arlington Place and Deming Place in Lincoln Park should have been renamed as Montana Street and Lill Avenue, because they aligned east to west with those longer streets, despite not having a continuous block of streets.
“Deming Place and Arlington Place residents joined Bellevue Place residents yesterday in expressing indignation at the cold-bloodedness of the council committee on street nomenclature which has threatened to rob them all of their euphonious titles.” — Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 19, 1908
Others in the city were upset that they were losing a familiar house number. Mrs. Charles E. Pope, a resident along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, wrote to the Chicago Daily Tribune in early 1909:
“Really, I don’t see how we shall be able to bear the burden of four numbers after being used to only two. Besides, most of us have lived here many years, and we don’t like to see things changed.”
But even after the city-wide address renumbering, Brennan’s work wasn’t done. For the next 30 years he rooted out duplicate street names and inconsistencies, lobbying incessantly as part of the City Club’s two-man Street Nomenclature Committee.
Brennan didn’t get everything he wanted. He publicly lamented when aldermen wouldn’t take his suggestions for new street names, all of which he said should reference “meaningful” things like art, literature, history, poetry, and “illustrious names from many foreign lands.”
“It is for us of the present day to continue the work so well begun by the pioneers of Chicago instead of being looked upon as iconoclasts by future generations,” he said in 1913. "With a history rich in meaningful names there will be no need of our innocent thoroughfares being rechristened Hinton, Dunmore, Dennison, Empire, or Limerick."
As always for Brennan, it was a matter of historic importance.
"We are about to do something which will last as long as Chicago does,” he wrote.
After the initial disruption caused by the changes, Chicagoans eventually appreciated the relative simplicity of the city's new street names and addresses. But Brennan’s name was largely forgotten in the years after his death in 1942. His daughters wrote to newspaper editors and the city’s map department attempting to have their father’s work recognized.
Every time Chicagoans navigate the 227 square miles of their city, they’re unwittingly perpetuating Brennan’s legacy. But until recently one of the only explicit reminders of the man himself was a collection of weathered scrapbooks he carefully collected, which was placed in the care of the Chicago History Museum by Mary Brennan, one of his daughters.
Another daughter, Adelaide, lived to the age of 99 and was able to see Ald. Brendan Reilly dedicate the northwest corner of State and Madison as Edward Brennan Way in 2013.
Still, few people recognize the name of the man instrumental in rationalizing Chicago’s streets. Compare that to the fate of Daniel Burnham.
“Edward Paul Brennan was the man who, in my mind, is comparable to Daniel Burnham,” says Patrick Reardon. “Burnham had the Plan of Chicago, which was set up to change the landscape, the physical landscape of the city. Edward Brennan changed the mental landscape of the city.”
And that mental landscape persists today. Since Brennan’s system is universal across the city, with 800 numbers to a mile, Chicagoans still use that same mental landscape to get around their city.
Raphael Nash was born in the West Side’s Austin neighborhood, but has lived all over the city. He had to learn Brennan’s system, even if he didn’t know it was Brennan’s.
And even though most people today use a GPS to get around, Nash says it’s useful to have a mental map as precise as Brennan’s.
“Sometimes I'm driving and I don't need to be fumbling with the phone or anything so I just look up and pay attention to the number,” Nash says.
Brennan’s system is so simple that Nash and several other Chicagoans interviewed for this story say it has ruined them for other cities.
“When I spent time on the East Coast I learned cities like Boston, which is just a mess. I was like OK, we had order,” says Nash. “And when I came back home was I was like, ‘wow this is really easy.’ I don’t know why I never paid attention to it.”
Now Nash knows who to thank for that.
“Thank you, Mr. Brennan,” he says.
Who inspired our question?
We have several questioners to thank for inspiring this look into the city’s rational street-numbering system. Jessica Fisch and Paul Toben started us off, but so did Marina Post, a Chicago homeowner.
Post wondered why her 1890s home in Wicker Park (today 2146 W. Caton St.) was one of several homes in the neighborhood with stained glass windows displaying lower, outdated address numbers. Post’s is 51.
“I can imagine it would feel somewhat demeaning to go from 51, which feels kind of exclusive,” Post says, “to 2146, which just makes you feel like you're one of the masses somehow. I could imagine if I were living at that time I would feel attached to my number.”
She may as well have been talking about Mrs. Charles E. Pope, who complained about “the burden of four numbers” to the Chicago Daily Tribune during the address change. In fact we might owe our questioners’ curiosity to those stubborn homeowners from the early 20th century who kept their old house numbers beside the new, standardized addresses under Brennan’s plan. Without them we wouldn’t have the physical evidence of the pre-1909 system — or lack thereof — that piqued the interest of people like Paul Toben, Jessica Fisch and Marina Post.
Chris Bentley is a freelance journalist who reports regularly for WBEZ’s Curious City. Follow him at cabentley.com and on Twitter at @Cementley. Jen Masengarb is Director of Interpretation and Research at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Follow her at @jmasengarb.