The Great Fire of 1871 was a huge disaster for Chicago, but it played a crucial role in the city’s architecture. To this day, no one knows exactly where the fire started. According to tradition, it erupted in a barn on the west side of town on Sunday October 8, 1871. By Monday morning, it had spread across the river, into the business district, and ended late in the evening after rain extinguished the flames. 17,000 buildings were destroyed. The damage amounted to 20 million US dollars.
After the fire, most of the city was burned to the ground and there was little choice but to rebuild. This opportunity was seized and architects and landscape designers were brought in from all over America. They created a completely new metropolis – with buildings that had not been seen before. The world’s first steel-frame skyscrapers were designed by William La Baron Jenney. That was also the hour of birth of the Chicago School of Architecture. In 1909, Daniel Burnham drew up a plan for Chicago that would become a model for other cities. The ‘Windy City’ managed to make a name for itself architecturally.
According to lawschoolsinusa, one of the few buildings that survived the Great Fire is the Chicago Water Works. A visitor center is located here today. Even if the first skyscraper is long gone, Chicago boasts three of the tallest buildings in America: the 442 m high Willis Tower (which as Sears Tower was the tallest building in the world for almost 25 years from 1974), the 423 m high Trump Tower/Hotel and the 346 m high Aon Center.
In a city that takes architecture so seriously, it’s not surprising that it boasts several venues where you can experience Chicago’s architectural heritage for yourself. The best place to start is the Chicago Architecture Foundation/ArchiCenter on South Michigan Avenue, which offers more than 70 different tours and activities of all kinds. In the ArchiCenter’s CitySpace Gallery, the reconstruction can be carried out using a representation of the construction sequence and a true-to-scale model of downtown Chicago. The Chicago History Museum, located in Lincoln Park, provides all the details about the Great Fire and the role it played in the city’s history.
Architectural city tour
Take a cruise down the Chicago River to see the work of many of the architectural pioneers that shaped the city.
One of the architects of note was Daniel Burnham, who created the blueprint for the “new” Chicago and designed a number of groundbreaking buildings. These include the Roockery Building and the Reliance Building, which was renovated just a few years ago and reopened as the Hotel Burnham in his honor.
Louis Sullivan, a contemporary of Burnham, developed his own distinctive style and influenced artists as important as Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked for him briefly. See Sullivan’s work at the Jewelers’ Building, the Auditorium Building and the Carson Pirie Scott Building.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a distinctly American style of architecture emerged in Chicago—the Prairie Style. This style evokes the infinite expanse of the American landscape, concentrating horizontal expansion and blurring the boundaries between interior and exterior. Across the city, but most notably in the nearby suburb of Oak Park, visitors can enjoy works by the most prominent exponents of this style, George Maher and Frank Lloyd Wright, through a self-directed audio tour available in multiple languages.
During the 20th century, Chicago became a magnet for internationally renowned architects. Among these was Ludwig van der Rohe, whose sleek, glossy “International Style” left an indelible mark on the city. Among other things, Van der Rohe was the architect of the towers at 860-880 Lake Shore Drive and the designer of numerous buildings for the Illinois Institute of Technology, including Crown Hall, a stunning composite of steel and glass. German-born architect and Chicago resident Helmut Jahn is known for his monumental and controversial design, which is housed in the United Airlines Terminal at the James R. Thompson Centerof O’Hare International Airport and in State Street Village at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Since the beginning of the new millennium, however, other important architecture has been created in Chicago. For example, Frank Gehry created the centerpiece of downtown Millennium Park, the Steel Jay Pritzker Pavilion.