How the Chicago Fire Changed the City's ArchitectureHistorians in the News
tags: architecture, Chicago, urban history, city planning, Chicago Fire
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.”
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