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Crain’s Forum on the Chicago Fire – Crain’s Chicago Business

Crain’s video illustration with a historic illustration from the Library of Congress and a Getty Images video and photo.

The fire that destroyed Chicago 150 years ago in October 1871 prepared the ground for the city to become a leader in architectural innovation.

September 24, 2021

BY DENNIS RODKIN

The lens of history has a way of foreshortening things, sometimes making them appear to have less depth or distance than they really do. That’s true of Chicago’s historical lens, focused now on the 150th anniversary of the Great Fire of 1871.

The popular but foreshortened tale of Chicago in the aftermath of the fire has a great city rising almost immediately from the ashes, with architects and others arriving to help rebuild better, bigger and newer. That much is true, but there’s more time between devastation and Chicago’s emergence as a capital of architectural innovation than the tale includes.


Chicago rising
Many of Chicago’s most iconic buildings were constructed in the parts of the city that burned to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire. Take a look at what was created within the “Burnt District.”


One fact that some stories leave out is a second fire, in July 1874, that burned an area south of the present-day Loop that had not been scorched in 1871. That’s the fire that prompted an outright ban on wood buildings and requirements for larger water mains and new fire safety codes.

For another, those tales leave out rampant real estate speculation in fast-growing Chicago in the years after the fire, which resulted in pressure to build higher buildings “to make the land pay,” says Jen Masengarb, an architecture historian and executive director of the American Institute of Architects Chicago chapter.

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The city’s—and the world’s—first skyscraper, the 10-story Home Insurance Building, “opens 14 years after the fire,” Masengarb says. “There’s a whole generation of post-fire buildings that came before it.”

jen masengarb aia boehm

John R. Boehm

Jen Masengarb

Even so, “the fire of 1871 is what Chicago hangs its hat on,” says Adam Rubin, also an architecture historian, who is director of interpretation at the Chicago Architecture Center. That’s in part because it made headlines around the world and in part because it made a dramatic backdrop for the celebration of the city’s astonishing late 19th-century growth rate “when Chicago reintroduces itself to the world in 1893” at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Rubin explains.

But even if the timeline has been collapsed for good storytelling, Chicago’s rapid rise from a 2,100-acre field of ashes to a world capital of architectural innovation taught a lesson that stuck, Rubin says: “We can rebuild.”

In the 19th century, a river was rebuilt to reverse its natural flow; in the 20th century, tens of thousands of African American and European newcomers remade Chicago neighborhoods in their image; and in the 21st century, vast tracts of formerly industrial land on the Southeast Side are being reclaimed as environmentally sound parkland and open space.

Exporting expertise

In a sense, Chicago is rebuilding its primary architectural specialty, high-rise buildings, on foreign shores.

“We aren’t building the tallest buildings here anymore,” Masengarb says, “but we are designing many of them in the places they’re being built.”

Chicago architecture firms like Skidmore Owings & Merrill, Goettsch Partners and Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture are prolific high-rise builders in Asian markets, where the tallest buildings are being constructed. “The deep expertise is here,” Masengarb says.

Although tall buildings didn’t sprout directly out of 1871’s ashes, Tom Leslie draws a straight line between the fire and the path-breaking first tall building, Home Insurance.

Leslie, a professor of architecture at Iowa State University and author of the 2013 “Chicago Skyscrapers, 1871-1934,” says that following the 1871 fire, the New York-based insurer “was one of many insurance firms handling claims in Chicago, but they did a better job of getting money to the people who made claims.”

Post-fire claims bankrupted 68 insurance firms, according to the International Directory of Company Histories, but not Home Insurance. Its piece of the pie was small—$2.5 million in claims, or about one one-hundredth of the estimated $200 million in property damage—but handling them fast gave the Home Insurance brand a boost, Leslie says.

By the early 1880s, Chicago was such an important market for the firm “that they wanted to build an office here, and that’s how Chicago got the Home Insurance building,” Leslie says. Designed by Chicago architect and civil engineer William LeBaron Jenney, the building at LaSalle and Adams streets is considered the progenitor of skyscrapers because it was first to use an interior skeleton of iron and steel rather than exterior load-bearing walls to support its weight. (The building was demolished in 1931.)

As the Chicago Tribune’s former architecture critic, Blair Kamin, noted in 2019, when the Home Insurance building opened it wasn’t any taller than buildings that were already standing in New York. But those were built in the traditional method, piling stones higher and higher on load-bearing walls. Jenney’s work was an important departure that removed forever the height limitations that came with heavy outer walls.

Coupled with Jenney’s technical innovation, the artfulness of another Chicago architect, Louis Sullivan, cemented Chicago as the home of the skyscraper. Sullivan showed how ornamentation and an organization into base, shaft and top made tall buildings look modern, instead of like centuries-old buildings only taller.

The first housing crisis

If the aftermath of the fire gradually led to Chicago emerging as an innovator in tall buildings, the immediate need in the days and weeks after Oct. 9, 1871, was for housing—and lots of it.

Then and now: Chicago Water Tower
The Great Chicago Fire destroyed much of the city in 1871, but a few buildings survived, including the Chicago Water Tower. Use this slider to see how the area surrounding the water tower looked in 1871 after the fire compared to what is there today.

water tower mich ave slider old water tower mich ave slider new

Sources: Historic photos from Getty Images. Current photo by Paul Goyette


The fire created “Chicago’s first housing crisis,” says Elaine Lewinnek, American studies professor at California State University, Fullerton, and the author of the 2014 book, “Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl.”

Nearly one-third of Chicago’s 324,000 people were rendered homeless by the fire. The first solution, devised largely by politicians representing immigrant communities, Lewinnek tells Crain’s, was to build a series of barracks-style buildings to house large numbers fast.

“The native-born elites took over and decided that barracks encouraged promiscuity and idleness and vice, in their words,” Lewinnek says. “They called apartments ‘French apartments.’ They thought if you could see each other’s beds, you might jump into them.”

Thus in the winter following the fire, the Chicago Relief & Aid Society built 8,033 small houses outside the downtown area. A house was a new style of living for many Chicagoans. Lewinnek wrote that they “had been burned out of apartments, boardinghouses, brothels and hotels, but for the safety of their city, the Chicago Relief & Aid Society decided to rehouse these people in suburban cottages.”

A new growth metropolis
The Chicago Water Tower survived the Great Chicago Fire when few other buildings did, especially at the intersection of Chicago and Michigan avenues. What was once the desolate, burned remains of a city in 1871 is now home to a variety of buildings spanning several architectural eras. Here are a few of the highlights.
Photo by Paul Goyette


Single-family homes existed in Chicago before October 1871, but “I think of the fire as the flash from a camera,” Lewinnek tells Crain’s. “It really exposed how Chicagoans wanted their city to develop, as a city of single-family homes, what they called ‘isolated’ houses.”

Isolated houses appealed to working-class people who had arrived in Chicago from places like Germany, where ownership of land was considered a virtue, so the pattern of single-family homes with yards, however small, became popular in Chicago neighborhoods, Lewinnek says. That made the city look distinctly different from older ones like Baltimore and Philadelphia, dominated by row houses in their 19th-century neighborhoods.

Only a few of the original cottages remain standing. The notion of building small houses for workers caught on, and Chicagoans remain fond of the little peak-roofed “workers cottages” that remain on blocks of McKinley Park, Pilsen, Ukrainian Village and other neighborhoods that boomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among the countless owners of workers cottages over the decades since are Jurgis Rudkus, the Lithuanian immigrant at the center of Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle,” which exposed the brutal working conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking industry.

adam rubin cac boehm

John R. Boehm

Adam Rubin

Single-family home ownership is certainly no evil. Yet by embracing isolated houses over multifamily buildings right after the fire, Chicagoans “helped create our 20th century version of suburban sprawl,” Lewinnek says.

Push to the sky

After some time—and the second fire—Chicagoans built the skyscraper-packed skyline that came to characterize the city. Success breeds success, and generations of architects kept Chicago on the leading edge of design. Among them were earlier architectural pioneers Daniel Burnham (Union Station), Louis Sullivan (Carson Pirie Scott department store), Frank Lloyd Wright (Robie House in Hyde Park) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (860-880 Lake Shore Drive).

Later 20th-century firms such as Skidmore Owings & Merrill, Perkins & Will and Studio Gang each helped push Chicago’s skyline to the height of innovation, whether in design, such as Gang’s undulating, color-changing St. Regis tower that is new on the skyline, or in engineering, such as SOM’s “bundled tube” design that half a century ago made the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) possible.

Yet, as Masengarb says, while Chicago remains a major depository of architectural innovation, its products often show up on other cities’ skylines these days.

Then and now: St. Michael Catholic Church
Another one of the few surviving buildings from the fire was St. Michael Catholic Church in Old Town. After the fire, only its walls remained. Use the slider here to compare the post-fire 1871 church structure to today’s church.

st michael slider old v2 st michael slider new v2

Sources: Historic photos from Chicago Historical Society. Current photo by Paul Goyette


Rubin sees that as a descendant of Chicago’s rebirth after the fires of 1871 and 1874. Commissions to build tall buildings around the world often come to firms that built Chicago’s skyline (and the firms that grew out of them, such as Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, a spinoff from SOM), Rubin notes. The commissions come “particularly from markets that are really looking to establish themselves as major economic centers, the same way that Chicago was trying to do a very long time ago.”

“When Chicago was creating any number of buildings,” from Home Insurance, the Rookery and the Monadnock through the Sears Tower and on to Studio Gang’s Aqua and St. Regis towers, “those were moments for us to create an urban identity for us, in the way that Dubai and others are doing now.”

September 24, 2021

forum chi fire bottom refer

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