In October of 1871, a massive fire destroyed the city of Chicago. Although the fire was initially tragic, any historical account of the city will demonstrate the inspirational strength and resilient attitude of Chicago’s population. It allowed the city to recreate itself as an ultimate symbol of America; visionaries built an unimaginable skyline that represents the climax of engineering and architectural innovation, and it is home to a global community and economy. The long-term impacts of the fire allowed Chicago to grow into a center of culture, art and business that continues to be recognized worldwide.
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Previous to the city’s modern development, Chicago was known for its railroad connections, meat packing industry, lumber, and access to the Great Lakes. Just like any other US city during this time period, Chicago had undergone an industrial movement and waves of immigration. The Chicago River is conveniently located through the center of the city for factory access. Factory employment among other factors attracted immigrants, particularly from Germany and Ireland, which still make up a large portion the city’s demography today. Chicago’s location in the center of the Mid West, especially with the transcontinental railroad, made the city very convenient for trade and travel through the United States. This remains true today.
Most embellished accounts of the tragic fire will tell the story of a cow that kicked over a lantern and began the fire, but this is actually a false story that a journalist fabricated. There are currently only theories as to how the fire was started, but none are as amusing as a clumsy cow. Unfortunately, the watchman who was meant to call out fires from his watchtower made a wrong call, and the fire quickly spread through downtown Chicago. Panic spread, and although Chicago was strongly equipped to prepare for a disaster like this, firemen did not have the chance to act as quickly as would have been necessary. 25% of the city, primarily the downtown area, was demolished, three hundred people died and one hundred thousand were left homeless without money or any belongings. The fire spread so far and fast because the majority of Chicago buildings were built of wood and tar. This, combined with a dry summer and Midwest winds, making the city extremely susceptible to combustion. Besides one single building, 20,000 businesses and homes in the area were completely destroyed.
“Everywhere dust, smoke, flames, heat, thunder of falling walls, crackle of fire, hissing of water, panting of engines, shouts, braying of trumpets, roar of wind, tumult, confusion and uproar.” Chaos erupted when the fire tore through the city. Few could escape, and many ended up waiting in the cold waters of Lake Michigan to keep cool and avoid injuring themselves from the heat. No images of the fire exist, except those created by the narratives, paintings and letters written by survivors.
Federal military occupied the area for several weeks, and goods were donated from across the world in the so called Chicago Relief. Neither the military nor the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, which was responsible for helping affected people, made any significant difference in the city’s recovery. Relief and aid was very discriminatory, and refused help to people who were unemployed or in relative poverty. The Chicago Relief and Aid Society did not believe that they should invest in those people who could not return to their previous financial status and become a functional member of society. However, because of the city’s crucial economic importance to the US, it received generous aid from the rest of the country. “Businessmen in New York City sent $600,000 to the city to assist in its recovery and sent wagons through the New York City streets to collect spare clothing for the needy Chicagoans. Cincinnati raised $160,000 in aid before the fire stopped burning. Milwaukee closed its public schools for one day and the city collected relief supplies. Boston sent $400,000 to the city, Buffalo sent $100,000, and little Lafayette, Indiana, sent $10,000.” These donations allowed Chicago to rebuild itself, and were the first initiatives to build the new Chicago, which represents innovation and continuous improvement.
During this time, Edward Payson Roe wrote a popular romantic novel, Barriers Burned Away. Heavily influenced by Evangelism, his novel suggested that the destruction caused by the fire would become an opportunity for Chicagoans to dismiss social divisions, recreate their city, and reach a higher level of spirituality. In some regards, Edward Payson Roe’s optimism was a correct prediction of Chicago’s future.
The city was totally recreated into a more impressive and advanced version of itself in a mere two years, coined the Chicago Reconstruction. Looking back, “Chicago was set forward 10 years by the fire.” Architects from around the world sprung at the opportunity to recreate this urban area, launching a new era of inventive architecture. After the destruction of the fire, Chicago was cleverly planned around the Chicago River and the waterfront. The layout of the city no longer represents the spontaneous and gradual urbanization of an area, which sets it apart from other major metropolitan areas. The parks, waterfront and museums for which Chicago is so popular were designed by urban designers. Additionally, a lot of this new infrastructure was built for and supported by the Columbian Exposition that occurred several years later. The people of the city were given an opportunity to plan the city in a more convenient and attractive way.
After the heart of the city was destroyed in the fire, architects arrived from around the world to design the skyscrapers that now make up Chicago’s famous skyline. Buildings with wooden frames were outlawed in 1872 legislation, which aimed to create a “fireproof” city. This sparked some alternative forms of architecture. Also, downtown property value skyrocketed, and so did the height of buildings. Louis Sullivan is accredited with the invention of the skyscraper; this revolutionary type of architecture allowed big buildings to exist on a relatively tiny amount of land. These new structures would be advanced and visionary, and the beginning of a new architectural era. Famous buildings like the Willis Tower, previously known as the Sears tower, are architectural masterpieces that followed the massive architectural movement of Chicago, which began with the reconstruction following the fire of 1871. Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan are two of the most recognized Chicagoan architects involved with the building of the new, vertical city. They developed buildings of modernity and originality.
These new skyscrapers became a monument of Americanism, the urge for bigger and better, and a human dominance over the natural landscape. Nevertheless, the towering buildings received plenty of criticism. People were afraid that they would completely block natural light in the city, and that people had become too greedy to accept what nature had given them. It is no surprise that this modern, architectural technology terrified people. The new structures were massive, and elevators became essential to travel up and down tens of stories, but were not trustworthy. New engineering innovations were introduced in every building, and there was no regularity to the appearance of these skyscrapers; each was a unique piece of art. Metropolitan areas throughout America were inspired by the progressive skyline, and so are architects in contemporary times. Americans are proud to claim that Chicago represents the visionary culture of the nation because of the city’s constant desire to develop and recreate itself.
Chicago is not only a symbol of architecture, but also a premium model of urbanism and urban planning. Millennium Park, lying on the waterfront in front of Chicago’s impressive wall of skyscrapers, marks Chicago’s thriving civic space. It is a center of recognized art, a tourism destination, and demonstrates a global community. Also, cable car rails were incorporated into the city’s bustling interior, including the famous Loop, where public transportation still runs today. The layout of the city is not random, but rather designed around the desire for remarkable and strategic metropolitan area. Previous to the fire, commercial, industrial and residential areas were miscellaneous. However, as planners redesigned the city, the downtown area was devoted entirely for commercial buildings. Business in Chicago instantly become much more efficient and successful.
Commerce was always central to Chicago, and fortunately was not entirely lost in the disastrous fire. Many insurance companies went bankrupt after the event. Fortunately, the city’s wealthy economy never faltered, as the railroads and lumber yards were untouched. Because Chicago was so valuable to the American economy before the fire, “the capitalists, the mercantile and business interests of this country and of Europe cannot afford to withhold the means to rebuild Chicago.” Massive monetary donations were given to Chicago so it could quickly rebuild its commercial importance. Employment climbed rapidly with the demand for laborers and construction workers, and the city’s population quickly grew. For these reasons, commerce in Chicago grew even faster and stronger than before.
The Columbian Exposition, or the World’s Fair of 1893, took place in Chicago approximately twenty years after the fire. It symbolized and celebrated Chicago’s full recovery. It also added to Chicago’s popularity and allowed the city to enforce its financial strength. The Navy Pier, which is a major tourist attraction in Chicago today, was originally built for the Columbian Exposition, along with several parks. People visited the spectacular city that is Chicago from around the world, and it allowed Chicago to create a cultural identity for itself. The fair fortified the remarkable improvement the city had undergone in the past twenty years and the “world city” impression that Chicago continues to express today.
The city of Chicago has always been home to a diversity of cultures from around the world, reflecting the basis of most of the United States’ population. The Irish, German, Jewish and Chinese districts of Chicago are still recognized today. As in all US cities during this time, the immigrant communities were isolated. Most of Chicago’s population spoke in foreign languages, and many could only speak a very limited amount of english. During the chaos of the fire, these culturally separated people broke down their differences in order to work together to rebuild their homes and businesses. From another perspective, relief and aid services discriminated against certain immigrant groups. Despite the increased demand for laborers to rebuild the city, immigrants still had difficulty finding steady employment. Chicago remains home to a variety of cultures, whose differences and similarities were highlighted by the disorder and recovery of the Great Chicago Fire.
The lower immigrant classes of Chicago were often involved in protest groups and unions after the fire, especially as the city heavily relied on engineers and laborers. Negotiations of wages, work conditions, and working hours became intense. After the fire, the Paris Commune rose for a short time. This was a socialist experiment among impoverished immigrants, which applauded the workers who rebuilt Chicago. Many lower class people were also involved with labor unions against the unfair wages and working conditions of factories. This eventually led to the Haymarket Riot, which remains a significant event in Chicago’s history. An originally peaceful protest against unfair working hours eventually led to a battle between the people and the police, forming a complicated relationship between immigrants and law enforcement. The people of Chicago were not an entirely united group as they recovered from the fire, but the social demography of the city was considerably transformed.
Chicago and the rest of the United States still recognize the long-term impacts of the fire in contemporary times. Ultimately, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was one of the greatest turning points in Chicago’s history. To consider Chicago a center of architecture would be an understatement. The impressive innovation that the recovery from the fire brought upon Chicago rippled through the US, and continues to inspire artists and city-dwellers. Chicago is also extremely unique in its pioneering urban planning and characteristic skyline. These mark the city’s constant improvement. With the status as host of a successful World Fair, a diverse combination of cultures, and the location of global economy and commerce, Chicago can also boast of worldwide significance and recognition. Originality, progressiveness, and a worldly culture, stemmed from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, define Chicago as the ultimate American city.
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