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Daniel Burnham's San Francisco Plan

Welcome to Curbed SF's newest series Could Have Been, where we investigate some of the most outlandish and grandiose proposals that were never built. Know of a plan that never saw the light of day? The tipline's always open or you can leave a comment after the jump.

[1905 Burnham Plan of San Francisco [photo: Outside Lands]

It's no secret we love a good map here at Curbed. The aerials of the city of San Francisco are as ubiquitous and recognizable as they come, with its streaks and blobs of green space and major bisecting road arteries. But imagine if you will a different city layout, one that included a massive urban park connecting Twin Peaks to Lake Merced.

The most well-known turn-of-the-century city planner was without question Daniel Burnham, who reached fame for his master plans of multiple cities, including Chicago and Washington D.C. As a City Beautiful practitioner, the designs followed Classical motifs and Beaux-Arts planning, with elements like wide tree-lined boulevards, axial cross streets, and carefully planned vistas terminating at the classical façades of monumental buildings.

Edward Bennett's photo of Daniel Burnham at Willis Polk-designed cottage on Twin Peaks, 1905 [photo: Lake Forest College]

In 1904, Burnham was invited to San Francisco by former Mayor James Phelan, who was serving as the president of The Association for the Improvement of Adornment of San Francisco - a group of movers and shakers who wanted to transform the city from its rough Barbary Coast days into a new "Paris of the Pacific." Burnham began studying the hills of Greece and Italy, likening their terrain to San Francisco. Along with his assistant Edward Bennett and local starchitect Willis Polk, the team camped out at the top of Twin Peaks (in a Polk designed cottage) because it had the best vantage point of the whole city.

Burnham's plan for an Athenaeum on Twin Peaks, 1905 [photo: Outside Lands]

Burnham's plan called for functional districts (like Civic Center, commercial, residential, industrial, etc) connected by massive tree-lined boulevards and lots of small pocket parks. His plan for the area west of Twin Peaks, then sparsely developed, included clearing the forests for a 4,764-acre meticulously landscaped urban park filled with native California plants and man-made lakes (for comparison, Golden Gate Park is 1,017 acres). The plan also called for a grandiose Athenaeum at Twin Peaks complete with 300ft statue and waterfall, and an amphitheater at current-day Cole Valley for "horse shows, polo matches, football, lacrosse, and other games."

No surprise the plan was a massive undertaking, estimated to take 50 years to construct and cost $50M in 1904 (that's about $1.2B in today's money). Inevitable cost issues and concerns over imminent domain stalled any movement on the plan, and when the 1906 Earthquake and Fire hit, all of Burnham's original plans and drawings were destroyed in City Hall. The plan was never considered again.
· Daniel Burnham's Twin Peaks Vision [Outside Lands]
· Burnham Plan 1905 [Found SF]
· The imagined city: Burnham's Vision [SPUR]