It’s been 150 years since the last embers from the Great Fire flickered out, leaving behind a smoldering city with the will and the money to rebuild.
And it did. Chicago virtually remade itself within 20 years. New buildings sprang up downtown and in other areas ravaged by the conflagration. Millions of tons of rubble from the fire were dumped into the lake, creating landfill that would be planted and reshaped into Grant Park and portions of Burnham Park, just south of current day Roosevelt Road.
Confident and reenergized, Chicago in 1889 annexed the 125-square-mile crescent of townships around the edges of the city. In one sweep, Chicago tripled in physical size, picked up 225,000 new residents.
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 — terrible, costly, deadly — changed the city in myriad ways. And it had a big hand in making Chicago an architectural capital.
The fire altered the way we constructed buildings and protected them from fire. The blaze shaped the planning and development of neighborhoods as populations moved to join those who were forming and populating new communities outside of the fire zone.
“There was a feeling among historians that everyone knows about the fire and ‘yeah it was bad, but it didn’t change the city much,’ and the fire has been exaggerated in Chicago history,” said D. Bradford Hunt, professor and chairman of the history department at Loyola University Chicago.
“But the Great Fire transformed lives in Chicago and gave the city [a reputation as] a place of renewal, progress and great possibilities,” he said, referencing an entry on the fire in the Encyclopedia of Chicago.
For better and for worse, this is true. Skyscrapers, fire-resistant buildings, breathtaking architecture and the eye-popping structures of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition came in the decades following the fire — and were writ deeply into the city’s genetic code.
But, arguably, so was the city’s tendency to clear away entire neighborhoods, often with haste, and build new, to barrel expressways through communities or plant the first McCormick Place convention center building right on the lakefront.
Said author Dominic Pacyga, professor emeritus of history at Columbia College Chicago: “The fire was really Chicago’s first urban renewal project.”
In a ‘fireproof’ city, terra cotta is king
The Great Fire, like many major historic events, gave birth to a myth: That after the fire, Chicago — particularly its downtown —immediately became a new city of early skyscrapers and fireproof buildings.
Those things did happen, but it took a while. The city’s first real skyscraper, the 10-story, steel-framed Home Insurance Building at Adams and LaSalle streets didn’t come along until 1885, almost a decade and a half after the fire.
And while most commercial buildings and other structures within the 2,100-acre fire zone were rebuilt in fire resistant materials such as brick, stone or terra cotta cladding, temporary buildings made from wood were also allowed.
Which isn’t to say that building a fireproof city wasn’t the goal. Chicago Tribune Publisher Joseph Medill ran for mayor under the Union-Fireproof Party — the election was a month after the fire — and won nearly 73% of the vote.
“No more fires, because we’re going to build only with brick and stone,” Hunt said. “Medill runs on that platform. He wins on that platform.”
Ironically, brick and stone buildings were also lost or ruined in the fire. The blaze was hot enough to loosen mortar or melt iron frames and cast iron storefronts, causing a building to collapse.
Medill’s Tribune headquarters at the time, a masonry building, was lost in the fire.
Masonry buildings with wooden roofs were vulnerable also.
Once in office, the new mayor pushed for better building codes, including a ban on wooden construction.
But when residents, particularly German immigrants, who were moving to Chicago en masse, complained about the cost of rebuilding in brick or stone, the City Council successfully reduced the ban to the fire zone only.
“The City Council divides the city because ‘Who wants stone?’” Hunt said. “It’s usually the elites — the commercial class — that have property downtown, and people in the nicer neighborhoods who want stone. Immigrants, especially German immigrants who were kind of the majority of those coming over [then], who do not want to build brick.”
But the ability to build wooden houses outside of the fire zone led to the rapid growth of communities such as Canaryville and much of the South and Southwest sides, along with Andersonville and huge swaths of the North and Northwest sides.
Open tracts of land outside the fire zone were especially attractive.
“Much of the western part of Lincoln Park remained rural until the 1870s, when the Chicago Fire of 1871 stimulated real estate development outside the fire zone,” said a 2020 city-drafted landmark designation report on a cluster of 1880s brick commercial buildings at Halsted and Willow streets that detailed the community’s history.
“The more built-up eastern portion of the community area had been destroyed, and many residents rebuilt in areas untouched by the fire, including the areas along Halsted and east and west of the street,” the report said.
Over the next few years after the fire, the city grew lax in enforcing fireproof construction.
“The interesting thing about that debate over brick and wood is that it brought up the question — the same question we face today with vaccinations,” Hunt said.
“Like, ‘I don’t want to get vaccinated. You can do that if you want, but I’m not doing it. You want to build with stone. That’s fine. I can’t afford it. I’m building with wood and it’s my choice,’” Hunt said.
Then on July 14, 1874. during a hot, dry summer, Chicago was struck by a second great blaze, although smaller than the first one, that began near current day Roosevelt Road and Wells Street and burned northeast toward downtown. The fire stopped when it reached the new brick and stone buildings built after 1871.
The second fire incinerated 50 acres of primarily wooden buildings and residences — about 800 structures in all — and killed 20 people. But it also caused insurance companies, with the 1871 conflagration fresh in their minds, to push the city to definitively ramp up fireproof construction and improve its fire department.
“You need both fires,” said Chicago History Museum Senior Vice President John Russick. “Because if it had only been the 1874 fire, maybe it’s not big enough and it’s not critical enough.
“But I think what happens in 1874 is, is the fire that burns that year burns the city that was rebuilt — or a big chunk of the city that was rebuilt — because [those areas had been] built basically the same way [as before the 1871 fire],” he said. “And so really you didn’t have much change.”
But change did come after the two fires. And a major one was the use of terra cotta as building cladding. The mixture of clay and sand, baked rock-hard at 2000-degree temperatures, was not only fireproof, it could be molded into ornamental forms, greatly enhancing a building’s architectural beauty.
The Northwestern Terra Cotta Company was established in Chicago in 1878. At its factory and offices located at Wrightwood and Clybourn avenues, the company by 1890 employed a veritable army of 500 people, many of them skilled artisans from Europe.
The use of terra cotta formed a perfect marriage with the rise of steel-framed buildings, a new technology pioneered in Chicago in the decades after the fire. Architects could create buildings with strong, weight-supporting steel skeletons and then clad them in terra cotta that could be formed in myriad architectural styles.
And for the next 40 years, cladding from Northwestern Terra Cotta and similar companies wound up on Chicago’s most architecturally significant structures, including the Wrigley Building, the Civic Opera House, the Louis Sullivan-designed former Carson Pirie Scott department store at State and Madison streets, plus countless banks, storefronts, churches, schools, homes and other buildings scattered around the city’s neighborhoods.
The aftermath of the Great Fire also brings to the surface the larger question of how a modern American city should look and function. Pre-fire Chicago was a rapidly growing city — and an unbridled mess in many parts of town, where quality buildings and shanties could share the same block, and humans and working livestock competed for space on wood paved streets.
The fire, at least, provided a clear slate to start anew.
“There are the big issues [after the 1871 fire] about whether we’re building the right kinds of buildings,” Russick of the Chicago History Museum said. “But also . . . America is relatively new to the idea of a big city. So, urban planning: the whole notion of thinking about what a city should look like and what kind of infrastructure is essential and, you know, city services and all of that, and uniformity of design becomes important.”
These questions helped draw Daniel H. Burnham, a 25-year-old transplant from Henderson, New York, to Chicago. He’d been here for a short while in the 1860s but left to mine gold in Nevada. By 1873, he joined with friend John Wellborn Root, 21, and the two formed what would soon become the successful architecture firm, Burnham & Root.
The two men were responsible for a number of important Chicago buildings in the years after the fire, such as the Rookery Building from 1889 at 209 S. LaSalle St., the late, great Montauk Block, an early — and fireproof — skyscraper built in 1883 at 115 W. Monroe St., and the 21-story Masonic Temple, at the northeast corner of State and Randolph streets, from 1892, which was later demolished.
But Burnham was also among those wrestling with the question of how to build better cities. And how can a metropolis, particularly a growing one, become a place of beauty and order?
Burnham would famously answer these questions with his historic 1909 Plan of Chicago, co-authored with Edward H. Bennett. The visionary document, marked by stunning watercolors by artist Jules Guérin, called for a host of things, including new civic buildings, harbor facilities and parks, an improved and protected lakefront, and broad, green boulevards radiating from downtown.
But the Chicago Plan, though globally influential, came almost 40 years after the Great Fire. However, 20 years earlier Burnham tested his theories on urban order as chief planner of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
The world’s fair was essentially Chicago’s coming out party, a means to show the world a rebuilt city that was no longer a fire ruin, nor an untamed frontier town.
Burnham created a 700-acre electrified city-within-a-city with gleaming white neo-classical buildings set against wide landscaped walkways.
The romantic-looking buildings were made of plaster but looked convincing enough and helped ignite the City Beautiful movement in which upstart metropolises — including Chicago — looked to classical Europe for design cues.
The World’s Columbian Exposition took in more than 27 million people and showcased a new, reborn Chicago, the likes of which were dreamed of and conceived moments after the last of the Great Fire’s blazes were extinguished 22 years earlier.
Chicago goes big after the fire
Arguably, recovering from the Great Fire instilled the city with the will to build big, and if need be, wipe the deck clean and build again.
“It’s a landscape on which we continue to paint anew the idea of what Chicago should be,” Russick said.
“There is a feeling that we can rebuild bigger and better,” Hunt said.
For instance, the city in 1887 undertook the Herculean and unprecedented feat of reversing the flow of the once very foul Chicago River to keep Lake Michigan’s supply of drinking water clean.
But Chicago’s pattern of clear cutting areas to build bigger hasn’t always led to better.
In the 1960s Mayor Richard J. Daley wrecked most of the Near West Side’s Little Italy neighborhood like so much fire rubble to make room for the University of Illinois Chicago campus.
But the neighborhood and UIC could have coexisted, as the areas around DePaul University and to some extent the University of Chicago show, had it been planned that way from the start.
And Pacyga noted whole communities on the South, West and Near North sides that were bulldozed in the 1950s and 1960s to build public housing high-rise buildings.
“And now they’ve torn them down,” he said.
But there are also times when it all seems to work. Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration in 2009 paid $90 million for the former Michael Reese Hospital site, then razed it in what turned out to be a failed bid to win the 2016 Summer Olympics.
A collection of early and mid 20th century buildings and a noteworthy postwar landscape were lost. But now, the cleared site is slated to be turned into a $3.8 billion mixed-use development called Bronzeville Lakefront. It will likely be the largest privately built project in the South Side’s history.
The ‘I Will’ spirit
There is a fascinating, if somewhat overlooked, subtext to the Great Fire story: That for most, the will to stay in Chicago and rebuild was greater than the desire to flee and stay gone.
“They don’t just head to [northwest Indiana],” said Russick, whose museum opens an exhibit on the blaze. City on Fire: Chicago 1871 on Oct. 8.
“They don’t go to St. Louis,” Russick said. “There is this real impulse to build right on the foundations of the city that burned. And there is something really powerful about that.”