The Great Fire of 1871 reduced the vast majority of the city of Chicago to a ruined heap of brick and ash. The devastation at the time could not possibly have been seen as an opportunity, but in truth the fire created a blank slate with which the great architects of the day could experiment.
The result over the next 50 years was a transformation of a regular Midwestern city into a world-class jewel of modern architectural beauty. Although New York can lay some claim to wonders of architecture, it is Chicago that most prides itself on its innovative accomplishments. Here is a brief overview of the changes that came After The Fire.
How it used to be
In the 40 or so years before the fire, Chicago grew by leaps and bounds both in the number of buildings and in the vast number of new residents, many of which were immigrants. However, very little planning went into the growth of the city; it consisted mainly of brick and mortar office buildings, factories, and a vast sea of wood shanties that were virtually thrown up overnight to accommodate the influx of people.
Streets were made of wood and sidewalks were made of wood: when the city received very little rainfall in the summer of 1871, conditions were ripe for disaster. On October 8, a full quarter of the city’s residential areas and nearly its entire business district went up in flames and 300 lives were lost.
What happened next
Chicago was (and still is) a city with a lot of heart and a lot of spunk. Nearly immediately, 50 million dollars was pumped into rebuilding efforts: this time with plenty of planning, foresight, and ingenuity. Only the best architects and engineers were hired to do the job, and the newest techniques in steel and other construction methods were used: this city was going to be not only a showpiece, it was also going to last.
The great architect Louis Sullivan coined the famous phrase: “Form follows function,” and these words would come to define the city’s new sense of style during the rebuilding. The modern skyscraper was born in the Windy City, and although the initial one is long gone, many remain to be both used and admired as architectural marvels. The modern technology of steel framework made these skyscrapers possible and they are what give Chicago its distinctive and unique skyline. Other styles of architecture thrived as well, and many Art Deco buildings grace the downtown area.
Chicago is proud of its architecture and every important building is marked with a plaque, a date, and an attached history or interesting anecdote. Chicago boat tours are a popular way to easily view and learn about these buildings, as are walking tours. No one could have predicted over 170 years ago that The Great Fire would result in an even more beautiful city that would literally rise out of the ashes: but Chicago did just that.