While many of the claims that the fire had affected a major change in the architectural design of Chicago’s buildings are unfounded, similar claims can, and should be applied to the effect that the 1871 fire had on Chicago’s urban landscape. The rebuilt Chicago in 1874 was quite different in its overall urban pattern from the Chicago that burned in 1871 in at least ten ways:

Crosby’s Opera House ablaze during the Fire. (Online)

1. the loss of Crosby’s Opera House would be a major blow to the cultural life of the city, notwithstanding the erection of the Inter-state Exposition Building.  It would take over seventeen years to replace Crosby’s palace (i.e., the Auditorium).  Its loss relegated Chicago to an inferior position vis-à-vis Cincinnati in the Midwest’s cultural ranks during this period,

Poster showing Cincinnati’s Saengfesthalle and Exposition Buildings, 1873 Annual Industrial Exposition. (Online)

2. the “temporary” City Hall was built four blocks farther south at La Salle and Adams and remained there for fourteen years while the post-fire replacement City Hall/County Courthouse was under construction.  This meant that the city’s center of local politics had gravitated away from the northern portion of the business district to its southern edge,

John M. Van Osdel, Post-Fire Temporary City Hall, the “Rookery,” 1872-1885. Southeast corner of La Salle and Adams. Built around the Waterworks Water Tank that had survived the 1871 Fire, the tank acted as storage for over 8,000 books that were sent by Queen Victoria and Great Britain in the aftermath of the fire. (Andreas, Chicago)

3. the site of the U.S. Post Office and Custom House was moved two blocks farther south to the southwest corner of Adams and Dearborn, again reinforcing the Adams Street corridor, and replaced by a monumental building that established a new urban square in the southern portion of the business district that provided badly-needed green space and daylight, that eventually would become a major real estate center in the city.

William A. Potter, Post-Fire U.S. Post Office and Custom House, 1874-80. (Gilbert, Chicago)

The Post Office Square will be even more important after it was completed, as the open space provided by the pre-fire Courthouse Square in the northern portion of the business district would disappear first from the post-fire demolition and second, from the design of the replacement City Hall/County Courthouse, as its huge size would almost completely fill the Courthouse Square, eliminating the only open space that had been available in the northern half of the business district, 

James J. Egan, Post-Fire City Hall and Cook County Courthouse, 1875-84. Note that the architect has used the entire block for the building, leaving no open space that the Courthouse Square had once provided. (Online)

4. the city’s Wholesale district was moved from North Wabash on the east side of downtown to Market and Franklin Streets between Madison and Monroe on the west side for two reasons: first, there was less debris to remove from the streets so construction could start sooner, and second, this area was much closer to Union Station where many of the western salesmen arrived and took their merchandise back home.

The post-fire relocation the Wholesale District from N. Wabash to Market (Wacker).

5. the debris left over from the fire was dumped into the lagoon between Michigan Avenue and the IC tracks, creating a large amount of new land along the lakefront that would force a decision to be made concerning what to do with this newly-formed, unoccupied land, 

Above: Pre-fire Chicago, the lagoon between Michigan Ave. and the IC tracks; Below: The expanse of land created in Lake (Grant) Park by the debris from the Fire. (Online)

6. the Inter-state Exposition Building will be constructed, in response to both the loss of Crosby’s Opera House and the success of Cincinnati’s new Exhibition Buildings on this newly-formed land, thereby establishing a new center of gravity within the business district at Michigan and Adams,

W.W. Boyington, Inter-state Industrial Exposition Building, Chicago, 1873. (Online)

7. the move of the City Hall and the Post Office to Adams Street, reinforced by the southern relocation of the wholesale district, in conjunction with the erection of the new Exposition Center, helped to establish Adams Street as a major urban east-west spatial corridor. This ran from the Expo Center’s central pavilion to its western terminus, William Ogden’s Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, and Chicago Station at Canal and Madison, that had survived the fire,  

View east down Adams, from State Street, showing the central dome of the Expo Building terminating the vista, c. 1886. (Gilbert, Chicago)
Above: Post-fire relocation in the Loop centered along Adams Street: 1. Wholesale District; 2. Temp. City Hall; 3. U.S. Post Office; 4. Exposition Center. Below: Bird’s eye view of Chicago, 1874. The emerging new Adams Street corridor that will run from the Expo Center (left arrow), anchored by the post-fire Post Office/Customs House (in the center, that while shown completed, will take over ten years to complete), to the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, and Chicago Station at Canal and Madison (right arrow), that had survived the fire. The city hall is shown completed (which it will not be until eleven years into the future, and it sports a never-constructed spire which is easiest the tallest structure in the city. (Online)

8. the few congregations that were still present in the business district prior to the fire, took the opportunity created by their church’s destruction to sell their property and move outside of the downtown (with the sole exception of the First Methodist Block at the southeast corner of Clark and Washington).  There would be no steeples in the skyline of Chicago’s post-fire business district,

Above: Pre-fire Chicago; Below: Burling and Adler, Post-fire First Methodist Church Block, southeast corner of Clark and Washington, 1873. The congregation was required to maintain a church on this site by the contract of the owner who first donated the site to the congregation, or return it to his estate. Although there was no steeple, the sanctuary was placed in the top floor so that income-generating rental space could be built below it, an early example of the use of air rights. A steeple was finally erected in downtown Chicago in 1924 when this building was demolished to make way for a skyscraper, the Chicago Temple. The final irony in this story is that when completed, the Temple was Chicago’s tallest building from 1924-1930, when it was finally overshadowed by the new Board of Trade, designed by the son of John Wellborn Root, John Wellborn Root, Jr. (Root was also a member of the firm, Holabird and Roche that designed the Temple.) (Bluestone, Constructing Chicago)

9. while the tracks of Chicago’s railroads had also survived that allowed traffic to continue unabated, riders coming into the city for the next eight to nine years aboard the MC, CB&Q, IC, or the C&NW got a rude introduction to the damage the fire had wrought for neither the IC nor the C&NW stations were rebuilt until after 1880, therefore passengers had to work their way around the ruins for these years.  Because Cornelius Vanderbilt had only recently taken control of the Michigan Southern (see next section), his deep pockets could easily afford to rebuild the La Salle Street Station, 

W.W. Boyington, Post-Fire Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Station, 1872. Note the company’s name has been updated from the “Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana” to the Vanderbilt “Lake Shore & Michigan Southern.” (Chicago Historical Society)

10. and less strategic, but still important, the fire’s debris will permit the City to finally complete the filing-in of the city’s streets to their final official elevations, and will also permit the completion of Potter Palmer’s plan to widen State Street so that it could finally provide an urban ambiance appropriate for the city’s rebuilt retail district.

State Street, ca. 1880. (Online)

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s