Aug 30, 2013

Chicago Address System - Edward Brennan

Unveiling the honorary street designation of the corner of State and Madison as Edward Brennan Way. - Chicago Tribune

A form of MapQuest back in the day

August 25, 2013|By Patrick T. Reardon
  • Edward Brennan, the citizen whose efforts rationalized Chicago's streets. On Friday, August 30, State and Madison will be given the honorary designation as Edward Brennan Way. Brennan family photo from 1910. WARNING: There is a photo on the website of the Encyclopedia of Chicago that's purportedly of Brennan but, according to his daughter, is not Brennan. ..OUTSIDE TRIBUNE CO.- NO MAGS, NO SALES, NO INTERNET, NO TV, CHICAGO OUT, NO DIGITAL MANIPULATION...

Edward Paul Brennan was a nobody. One of us.
Born in 1866, he made deliveries for his father's grocery store, then worked downtown at the Lyon and Healy Co. music store as a bill collector and later as building superintendent.
Yet few individuals in Chicago's history have had as much impact — for the good — on the daily lives of Chicagoans, suburbanites and visitors to the city.
That's why, on Friday, a little before noon, a small ceremony will be held to officially unveil the honorary street designation of the corner of State and Madison as Edward Brennan Way. On hand will be Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, who sponsored the designation ordinance, and Brennan's daughter, Adelaide, who will turn 99 that day.
No intersection is more central to the identity of Chicago as State and Madison, and it's an apt location to honor Brennan since he's the one who gave the corner its prominence.
In the summer of 1901 when he turned 35, Brennan took an armload of maps with him on vacation to Paw Paw, Mich., and came back, like a prophet from the desert, with a detailed plan for helping people find their way in what was then a very chaotic Chicago.
How chaotic?
Well, because of wildfire annexations of neighboring villages and towns in the 1890s, Chicago had boomed in land, population — and confusion.
There were three different systems for numbering homes and businesses — one for the North Side (north of the main branch of the Chicago River and east of the river's north branch), one for the South Side (south of the main branch and east of the south branch) and one for the West Side (west of the north and south branches).
Then there was the duplication of street names. Chicago, in 1901, had nine Sheridan streets, nine Forest streets, 10 Oak streets, 13 Washington streets, 13 Center streets and 14 Park streets.
And, to further muddy the waters, there were what Brennan called "broken link" streets. These were streets that, because of Chicago's grid, went from one end of the city to the other, but were interrupted at various points. Such a street, often, would have one name on one side of the interruption and another on the other side.
For instance, depending on where you were in the city, the street just west of Halsted was called Lime Street, Reta Avenue, Craft Street, Newberry Avenue, Florence Avenue, Dayton Street or Green Street.
So Brennan — no expert, just a do-gooder — drafted his plan, summarized it in a letter to the Chicago Record-Herald and then, with the help of his second cousin, Charles Byrne, a reform alderman, submitted his detailed proposal to the City Council.
That plan called for:
•Rationalizing the numbering system by centering all addresses on State and Madison.
•Giving 1,000 numbers for each mile. (Before adoption by the council, this was changed to 800 numbers per mile. Thus, Pulaski Road at 4000 west is 1 mile east of Cicero Avenue at 4800 west.)
•Giving odd numbers to the east side of north-south streets and to the south side of east-west streets. And even numbers to the opposite sides of the street.
•Abolishing all duplicate names.
•Giving broken-link streets a single name.
•Using street names beginning with the same letter to designate north-south streets within the same mile as an indication of how far west they are of State Street. (That's why, for instance, most of the streets between Pulaski and Cicero begin with a "K." And then there are the "L" streets, and then the "M" streets, and so on.)
After years of debate, the council approved Brennan's numbering system in 1908, and it went into effect in 1909, everywhere except in the Loop. It worked so well, though, that, five years later, the Loop addresses were reoriented to State and Madison.
Patrick T. Reardon, a former scholar-in-residence at the Newberry Library, is researching two books about Chicago. He will speak at the dedication ceremony Friday.

Click to read the full article in the Tribune


Long Lost relative of MPHS Alumni Nan Brennan Honored



This was fascinating -- I had no idea. And you might as well claim him as kin because at some juncture on the old sod he probably was. Also anybody who might be able to contradict you is dead.

I hope you sent this to Craig Hullinger. It's the kind of thing he likes to put on his many blogs.

~Taffy Cannon


Thanks, Craig, and nice to hear from you!

Well, it won't be 'meet me at State and Madison' in my vernacular any more. It's official, ground zero is now Edward Brennan Way!

And what a perfect place to remember him, the start of it zero North, South, East and West.

I went to the unveiling today and Alderman Reilly and Pat Reardon did a lovely job of paying tribute to Edward Brennan, telling some of the history of the project that really took decades, because of political resistance and inertia, to implement.

There was a nice turnout, too. I thought there would only be a handful of people, they bought 24 cupcakes! I'd say there were probably 60-80 people. 

It is estimated that the quiet, polite, persistent Ed Brennan attended 600 city council meetings urging a 'rationalization' of the chaos of the Chicago streets.

A small contingent of Chicago Police and Fire Departments attended today to honor him as well:
getting to fires and police emergencies was a nightmare in those days----not knowing where the streets were.....and so much more--delivery of mail, groceries, and many other services. Can you imagine being an immigrant with an address scrawled on a piece of paper trying to find your relatives and there were sixteen Green Streets (or whatever) spread all over the city!

Chicago is considered the easiest city in America to get around in, and the Brennan plan is the logic and good sense behind it.

Brennan's daughter was honored at the event. Adelaide, like her father, is a quiet, polite, soft spoken lady, who has his persistence, too. She and her sisters (both now deceased, her whole family is gone) have attempted to gain their
dad the recognition he deserved for decades. She was 99 today! We sang happy birthday to her at the end of the ceremony. She is a very happy, contented, proud daughter tonight!

I had studied some records on her family and when I talked to Adelaide today she was stunned to learn from me that her grandfather, Matthew Brennan, had arrived in 1849 on the Irish famine ship, the Patrick Henry. She made me promise to come see her next week and I will. She lives around the corner from me. I've promised her that I would try to find exactly where in Ireland her Brennans came from when they boarded that famine ship 164 years ago.

Taffy tells me you have an interest in Chicago history. Patrick Reardon, the Tribune writer who authored the story is working on two Chicago books. One of them, and this is my language, is an ANTHOLOGY OF NOBODIES---'nobodies' like Edward Brennan who made significant contributions and whose lives are wonderful stories, but who have been forgotten along with their achievements.

In terms of corrections, Craig, I have no proof whatever, that Adelaide's Brennan family and mine are related. (My father didn't think we were and he made it his Chicago-Irish historian's business to know about Brennans and there were over a thousand of them in Chicago when he was young.) I know mine are from North Kerry, but I don't know where hers are from, although
I'll be working on it for her!

Here is a half hour radio interview on WGN: Bob Sirott and his wife interviewing Pat Reardon
about the development of this story and the stories within the story:

All the best,


Very interesting. I did not know this story.

In 1972 I drove an ambulance from Chicago Heights. The lack of a competent address system was very frustrating. You would be driving to a location described as the third house past the oak tree past the red barn on Locust Street.  We would often be lost with our sirens on asking people for directions.

In 1975 the addressing system in Will County was also chaotic.  Will County is the county just south of Cook and DuPage Counties, extending from Indiana to west of Joliet and to Aurora. It includes parts of Park Forest, Tinley Park, Orland Park, Lemont, Plainfield, Bolingbrook and Naperville.

The State of Illinois created a program where they would pay for the readdressing of the County. They wanted a metric system starting in the southwest corner of the county and working north and east.

This was of course silly for Will County. We would have ended up with our largest address numbers against Cook and DuPage County.

I was working as a planner for Will County and we decided to work on improving the address system. We considered seven different plans for rationally addressing the County. One was the State plan, one would start with the center streets of the County seat, Joliet, one was the Chicago address system, and one was the DuPage County system which was built from the Chicago system but strangely configured to reduce the system to a shorthand of the Chicago system.

I preferred the Chicago system. People in Chicago and Cook County understood it and it was in place in a few communities like Mokena. Most of commerce was with Cook County and using the same system they were familiar with made sense to me. 

My boss was from DuPage County and recommended the DuPage County system. And that is what the County decided on.

And then my boss departed and I became County Planning Director. And I convinced the County to adopt the Chicago system.

We slowly and laboriously changed the entire County over to the system. Each town of course had the right to retain their current system or adopt the County / Chicago system.

So it still a bit confusing but much more rational than before.

The advent of 911 and GIS computerized mapping and GPS made things much better. You can usually find addresses pretty quickly using your trusty GPS or phone. And ambulances can usually find their patients quickly.

Craig Hullinger MPHS Jan 66

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