JacksonSouth Loop

How Chicago Architecture Rose from The Great Chicago Fire

By Ally Gawrys and Deja Young

Posted: Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018

It was never quite specified how the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 started. Some say it was the barn of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary on Oct. 8, but there is no denying the drastic push for a newly envisioned Chicago that came through the devastation.

Before the Chicago Fire – the landscape of the city followed the typical city landscape of the time – low tech, low fidelity and yielding a population of approximately 324,000.

Author and Chicago historian Neal Samors told the Chicago Architecture Foundation and WBEZ that if the fire had not occurred, “Chicago would probably have been a much smaller metropolis and not the second [currently third] largest city in the United States.”

Since the fire caused the city to become a blank slate, architects, urban planners and engineers alike got a chance to make their mark in the city and remake the entire area from ground up.

“It is all of these big moves, as the city is already having to rebuild in the 1870s and early 1880s you get this acceleration that comes from an increase in population, a consolidation of business and a willingness to invest in infrastructure at the city level to be able to support these big ambitions and also to put Chicago on the map internationally,” said Jayne Kelley, a visiting assistant professor at UIC School of Architecture.

Timeline iconTimeline: Chicago rises from the ashes

The architecture that did withstand the fire was separated by the materials that they were made from. The stone/limestone buildings stood tall while the vast majority of the buildings were built with wood were burned. This was a note that was taken – now the materials for the new Chicago must be merely indestructible with outstanding infrastructure.

Some of the most well-known buildings which lasted were the historic Chicago Water Tower on Michigan Avenue, the famous St. Patrick’s Catholic Church landmark on Adams Street and even the oldest house in Chicago, the Clarke house

A huge advancement for Chicago was the "raising of the city" project from 1850 to 1860, before the fire. The city was built up an extra 10 feet above Lake Michigan, which was essential for a better functioning sewage system that integrated the river with the lake.

When the fire occurred in 1871, the city suffered great losses -- an estimated 300 people dead, 2,100 acres of burned, and 100,000 homeless. On top of it all, the new elevation of the city was being tampered with.

This catastrophe just couldn’t shake Chicagoans and through the devastation, it gave many city building professionals saw a blank canvas that was absolutely exciting to have their hand in.

This new time period resulted in such ambition to build architecture like never before, eventually being the first city to hold the skyscraper.

The Monadnock building by Burnham and Root in 1891 is an exciting modern ambition but still clear reservations to build in a way that is the new form of sleek. So the Monadnock building still has that chunky base  around six-feet thick – a classic stone masonry façade and a typical office building structure.

 Monadnock buildingThe Monadnock building located on 53 West Jackson Boulevard. (Photo/FriendsofDArch)

We also see the Auditorium Theatre by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler in 1889 – a major modern technological advancement of its time. This performing arts theatre was built with a capacity of 4,000, as the tallest building (at the time being 17 stories), lighting made with 3,500 electric clear glass carbon-filament bulbs but overall weighing in at 110,000 tons.

The weight and clunky-ness was still there in architecture, but internally, huge advancements were accomplished and show themselves in the Auditorium Theatre.

The theater was a technological prodigy is so many ways. The main idea that these advancements were displaying Chicago as a culturally relevant city which valued the arts and poured time and money into growth.

Alondra Ibarra, previous Intern for the Auditorium theatre explained the reopening and the later convergence the Auditorium theatre with Roosevelt University.

“In 1960, Roosevelt trustee Beatrice Batner established a council to raise funds to restore the theatre and they literally went around with cans to collect money [on the streets of Chicago] it was really really cool," Ibarra said. "And after they raised enough funds seven years later, in 1967 they restored it and it opened up again that year.”

The city grew in popularity when the bidding for the World’s Columbian Exposition started in 1882. The world’s Columbian exposition – or for short the World’s Fair was a large scale event that was meant to be an anniversary for when the United States was inhabited by Christopher Columbus.

The World Fair was an area of exhibitions and attractions which showed off the advancements that the United States and even specifically Chicago has been working on and showing off to all, since the migration to the United States.

“In making the case for getting the fair, buildings like that [The Auditorium Theatre] that show its not only that you have a business community and urban density that can support that, but you also are taking advantage of technologies in the interior, but also things like the steel frame, the elevator," Kelley said. "Showing that we  in Chicago know how to use this stuff, we know how to take advantage of what’s happening to make our city grow in a way that in other cities, it hadn’t quite clicked yet.” 

When Chicago was chosen for the honor to hold the fair, the entire southeast side of the city was torn and rebuilt into the large scale multi-building museum for this fair.

A section of the city spanning 690 acres was rebuilt to be called “White City” based off of all of the stark white neoclassical architecture that the entire fair was built in.



This beautiful White City held 14 “great buildings” which were centered around a huge  pool in the center. These buildings had topics consisting of advancements in administration, agriculture, manufactures and liberal arts, mines and mining, electricity, machinery, women’s advancements, transportation, fisheries, forestry, horticulture and anthropology buildings.

While the fair’s buildings and setup was intended to be temporary, out of the 200 buildings erected because of the fair, two stayed as relics for the World’s Fair and continue to live in Chicago.

These two buildings that stand after the fair is the Palace of Fine Arts – which is now the Museum of Science and Industry and the World’s Congress Auxiliary Building – which has been moved in location but is now the Art Institute of Chicago Museum.

“Soon after the fair there was actually a fire that burned a good amount of the fair, so there was a desire to keep some semblance of that which is why we see Museum of Science and Industry and other sorts of relics from that area remaining” Todd-Breland said.

The undenying growth of Chicago continued with investments from the Chicago Sanitary District of Chicago and in 1900. The flow of the Chicago River was reversed to move water away from the lake, thus saving Chicagoans from being contaminated by waterborne diseases in the water supply from Lake Michigan.

This massive public works effort was even more proof that Chicago was flourishing and making positive economic decisions for the citizens.

The El train system was also introduced to Chicago in 1943 to serve the city’s transportation needs.

Later, to continue the push to promote Chicago as being a city that is fit to live in, as well as work in, the Marina City Towers were made in the 1960s, meant to be an all-in-one work, play, live or a “city within a city” facility right in the center of the Loop.

The unique shape of the towers that resembles corn cobs were a unique and quirky addition to the Chicago skyline, but really turned out to be a success for the push of residential living Chicago.

Return to The Red Line Project

Feedback: Contact the reporter via Twitter or leave a comment below.