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Tragedy in the Chicago Fire and Triumph in the Architectural Response

Jo Ann Rayfield,
Historical Research and Narrative

Human resilience is one of the more dramatic themes in history. A tragedy and the recovery that follows are connected events from which lessons about the human experience may be derived. Consider Chicago's fire of 1871 and the spirit of recovery that flourished in its aftermath. The development of the skyscraper can be understood not only as an architectural style, but as the manifestation of tragedy turned into triumph by human will. Impersonal forces can also be viewed as promoting recovery and creating opportunities for innovation.

Fires were a recurring reality in the crowded, wooden cities of the nineteenth century. The Great Fire that destroyed much of Chicago in 1871, however, is legendary as an urban tragedy. Likewise, the rebuilding of Chicago in the following quarter century is legendary among recoveries and booms.

The year 1871 was dry in Illinois. Between July 3 and October 9 only two-and-one-half-inches of rain fell in Chicago. Several fires occurred in Chicago in the fall. On October 7 a fire broke out in a planing mill just west of downtown, and four blocks were burned before the fire was extinguished in the mid-afternoon of the following day. A few hours later, on the evening of Sunday, October 8, the Great Fire began. Within hours it was out of control. Before midnight it leapt the Chicago River into the South Side. In the early hours of October 9 the courthouse burned, and the fire moved into the area north of the Chicago River. The waterworks on Pine Street was put out of commission. On Monday the fire continued northward past Lincoln Park before it died early Tuesday morning in the vicinity of Fullerton Avenue as rain began to fall. The "Burnt District," nearly four miles long and almost a mile wide, included most of the central business district and many residential areas (see Handout 2).

The damage figures are still appalling over a century later. Nearly 300 persons died; 18,000 buildings were destroyed; 100,000 people (one-third of the city) were homeless; property valued at $200,000,000 (about a third of the valuation of the city)

Chicago 1871


was destroyed; thousands who worked in the burned-out businesses were left unemployed. Even the so-called "fireproof" building had gone down; the fire had melted exposed cast-iron, which in turn spread the fire. The Garden City of the West had been reduced to smoking rubble and ashes in a horror-filled day and a half. About half the destroyed property was covered by insurance. Many insurance companies were effectively destroyed by the fire—driven into bankruptcy when the fire destroyed their own offices or by the large claims filed by fire victims.

Instant histories that spoke of dangers shared and overcome and of commitment to rebuilding drew morals for readers. The worst of times, whether fire, flood, famine or war, can bring out the best in people anywhere.


Reconstruction began almost immediately Committees were formed, and plans for rebuilding were made even before the fire was out. Joseph Medill brought out a special edition of the Tribune proclaiming that Chicago would rise from the ashes. Potter Palmer, who lost his elegant new hotel and thirty-two other buildings, immediately began raising capital to rebuild. Largely on the strength of his personal reputation, he raised nearly $3 million. Some accounts suggest that bricks were still smoking when they were stacked for rebuilding. The optimism of men like Medill and Palmer was echoed up and down the social ladder as Chicagoans rose to the challenge. On October 13, barely four days after the fire, Jonathan Scammon announced that ground had been broken for an office block that was already fully reserved by tenants.

By October 1872, new buildings worth nearly $50 million had been erected. Between 1872 and 1879 more than ten thousand construction permits were issued. Between 1871 and 1891 some $316,220,000 was poured into the construction of new buildings. In 1873, despite a national recession, Chicago celebrated its resurgence by hosting the Inter-State Industrial Exposition (September 25-November 12) to promote Chicago and the Northwest. In the wake of the fire the city's fire code and building code had been strengthened. Another fire in 1874 that destroyed a dozen blocks south and west of Van Buren and Michigan frightened insurance company executives. Pressure from, insurers led to more stringent regulations and more thorough safety inspections. Improvements in fireproofing systems was an important prerequisite for the age of the skyscraper.

Certainly the city could have continued a downward spiral and spent decades in the swamp of despondency before recovery. But Chicago was perhaps unable to avoid the dictates of location.

In pre-fire decades an improved Lake Michigan harbor, the Illinois and Michigan Canal, and railroads funneled grain, meat, and lumber into Chicago for processing. Chicago was the nation's greatest market for grain, meat, and lumber, with an increasingly important role in the production of iron and steel and in financial matters. Chicago's unique geographic location and established economic ties were as much responsible both for pre-fire and post-fire growth as was the genius and spirit of its people.

Chicago's central business district, bound by the river and the railroads, was concentrated in a nine- or ten-square block area (see Handout 2). The price of land was nearly astronomical. In 1880 a quarter acre was valued at $130,000, in 1890 at $900,000. The only way to expand was up. Traditional masonry construction, which required ever-thicker foundations and evermore-massive footings as the building rose in height, limited that potential. What was needed was a new architectural vision and a new construction technique. The vision was the tall office building or the skyscraper. The technique—skeleton construction-adapted engineering techniques developed in bridge construction and applied them to the problem of rapidly and economically creating vertical office space. No longer would buildings be held up by external masonry walls, but by a interior skeletal structure. Metal framing, or skeleton construction, came into use for very practical purposes. The tall office building or "monster office block" was built as a real-estate investment. The rapid construction, lower labor costs, and increased floor and window space offered by skeleton construction led to greater and quicker profitability. In the 1870s the emerging "commercial style" was characterized



by simplicity and lack of adornment and continued reliance on traditional materials. These buildings were taller than pre-fire buildings and were often called "elevator buildings," since many incorporated the relatively new convenience of elevators. Yet, the height of traditional masonry construction was limited to four or five stories.

The architects who rebuilt Chicago and developed the skyscraper comprised one of the greatest concentrations of creative architectural talent in U. S. history. The best known of those architects included William LeBaron Jenney, Louis H. Sullivan, John Wellborn Root, and Daniel H. Burnham. From their ideas and work emerged the Chicago School, which is synonymous with the development and mastery of steel framing and the consequent development of the skyscraper as the dominant feature of the urban skyline.

Chicago Architects

Their achievement was no accident, even though the opportunity had been created by accident.

William LeBaron Jenney (1832-1907), an engineer in the Union Army who had designed fortifications and worked with railroad construction, came to Chicago in the late 1860s to take up a career as an architect and engineer. Many of the architects who developed the commercial style and the skyscraper worked at least briefly in Jenney's firm. Thus he was a teacher and trainer of this critical and creative generation.

Many elements of the commercial style were present in the five-story Portland Block, a Jenney-designed office building constructed in 1872. Although this was a transitional building—built in the post-fire "commercial style" but in the old form of masonry construction—it fired the imagination of other architects. In 1885, with the construction of the ten-story Home Insurance Building (1884-1885) on the southwest corner of LaSalle and Adams, Jenney brought the idea of skeleton or bridge construction closer to fruition. The Home Insurance Building was supported by masonry piers and walls in the lower floors, apparently because of building commissioner requirements, but steel beams were used in the upper floors. It was the prototype of the true skyscraper.

Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris before arriving in Chicago in 1873. The city was still in ruins and ashes, and buildings were half constructed. Impressed by the Portland Block, Sullivan asked Jenney for a job. Several years later, in 1879 he joined Dankmar Adler's firm, which became Adler and Sullivan in 1881.

It was Sullivan who articulated the philosophy implicit in the Chicago School: form follows function. A building should be designed and built for specific users in a specific context. The generic office building was composed of subunits: a basement for equipment; a common entrance for all tenants; a ground floor for store, banks, and shops; a second floor with large open rooms; indefinite number of office floors; and an equipment "attic" to complement the basement. This was a working building, and the role of the architect was to design and


build a functional, efficient, and aesthetically pleasing building.

Sullivan was an outspoken critic of the neo-classical theme of the World Columbian Exposition and took an independent tack with the Transportation Building. The building itself was simple and unornamented. Its Golden Door, a 70-by-100-foot portal with five concentric arches in bright red, orange, and yellow, stood in contrast to the building and to the predominantly white, neoclassical buildings around it. It exemplified Sullivan's ability to use intricate detail to ornament buildings of great architectural simplicity. Sullivan's masterpiece tall building is the Carson Prairie Scott Building. It is a completely steel-framed building, the simplicity of which is set off by rich ornamentation on the first two floors.

John Wellborn Root (1850-1891) studied civil engineering in New York before he came to Chicago. In 1873 he and Daniel H. Burnham formed a partnership. Some regard their nine-story Montauk Block (1881-82) on West Monroe as the first tall office building or skyscraper in Chicago, although others give Jenney's Home Insurance Building that distinction. While the walls of the Montauk were traditional masonry bearing, Root introduced two important innovations. The structural beams were covered by hollow tile, which made them more fire-proof. More important was his "rail-grilage" (or "grillage") technique of reinforcing concrete with steel rails to construct a "raft" on which the building would be constructed. This was part of the solution to constructing heavy buildings on soft soil, and it was an industry standard for years. Rail grillage was superior to masonry footings. Masonry footings were unsuitable for taller buildings; to support the weight of the building, the footings needed to extend up through the basement and into the first floor, causing an uneconomical loss of space. The sixteen-story Monadnock (1884-91) on the southwest corner of Jackson and Dearborn remains the tallest wall-bearing building in Chicago. The walls, six-feet thick at the base, rested on steel-reinforced concrete footings. It is the last great building in the masonry tradition. Iron columns and beams support the inner floors and roof. A major technical innovation in the Monadnock was the use of wind bracing throughout the building, an important feature for tall buildings in the Windy City and elsewhere.

The Rookery (1886-88) still stands at 209 South LaSalle. From the beginning it was to be called the Rookery, and the ornamentation suggested avian themes. Rooks, similar to crows, are part of the design around the entrances. Root used the grillage technique to minimize the space needed for the footings. The Rookery covered a large, almost square area (117-by-167 feet), enabling Root to put two tiers of offices around a large internal court to maximize natural lighting through windows. Burnham and Root established their own offices on the eleventh floor.

Daniel H. Burnham (1846-1912) joined the Chicago firm of Carter, Drake and Wight as a draftsman in 1872. Like other Chicago School architects, Burnham designed for other cities. He designed the Flatiron building constructed in New York in 1902. For a time it held the title of "tallest building in the world". In 1890 Burnham became chief of construction for the World's Columbian Exposition. As an authority on city-planning he left his mark on Washington, D.C., Cleveland, and San Francisco. Between 1906 and 1909 he led the project to develop a plan for Chicago.

Most of the buildings noted here combined the old masonry construction with newer techniques in fireproofing, grillage footings, and the use of iron-and-steel skeleton construction. In the 1890s and the twentieth century the skyscraper was more fully transformed into a steel skeleton on which the exterior walls were hung as a curtain to protect the interior rather than to support the weight of the building.

A coincidence of circumstances created the opportunity for a new urban architecture in Chicago that would be emulated across the nation. Several factors played important roles in this transformation. Certainly the Great Fire swept the ground clean. The need for office space in a physically circumscribed central district was the pressing problem. The economics of real estate and escalating land values required faster construction that also made possible new construction cheaper. The growth of the steel industry provided material and techniques. The creative intellectual vision of the founders of the Chicago School developed the skyscraper out of these needs and possibilities.

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