The ubiquitous tale of the Chicago fire – which raged for three whole days in 1871, leveling 3 sq miles of bustling city – is kind of like the mild, Midwestern version of the story of the phoenix, the great fire bird that burned fiercely in order to be reborn. Both mythical and allegorical, the Chicago story involves Mrs Catherine O’Leary’s cow (whose name is Madeline, Naomi, Daisy or Gwendolyn, depending on who’s telling it), who was blamed for kicking over a lantern and starting the blaze.
Regardless of how it happened, the devastation of the Great Chicago Fire quickly turned into one of the young city’s great blessings, as the moment in history and the location at the heart of a growing industrial nation ensured that Chicago would not merely be rebuilt. The flock of aspiring architects who raced each other toward the heavens rebuilt with the finest and most innovative structures the world had ever known.
From the oddball postmodernism of the mostly conceptual Chicago Spire to the artfully low-slung eves of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Homes, Chicago’s buildings don’t allow you to pass by without telling their own stories. Many of them are told in the bold designs of young architects such as Dankmar Adler, Daniel Burnham, John Root and Louis Sullivan. These men saw the scorched Loop as a sandbox for innovation, and they rapidly built bigger, better commercial structures over the low buildings that immediately went up after the fire.
These men and their colleagues made up the 'Chicago School' (who some say practised the 'Commercial Style'), which stressed economy, simplicity and function. Using steel framing and high-speed elevators, they created their pinnacle achievement: the modern skyscraper. And the houses they built for themselves during this period are just about as interesting; the Prairie Ave Historic District, with its majestic homes, was the most fashionable residential area in the city in the years after the fire.
Then it was off to the races. William Le Baron Jenney, the architect who constructed the world’s first iron-and-steel-framed building in the 1880s, set up shop in Chicago, training a crop of architects that pushed the city skyward through internal frames.
The Monadnock is a good place to get a practical sense of how quickly these innovations were catching on: the original northern half of the building consists of traditional load-bearing walls that are 6ft thick at the bottom, while the southern half, constructed only two years later, uses the then-revolutionary metal frame for drastically thinner walls that go just as high.
It was Louis Sullivan’s apprentice, Frank Lloyd Wright, who endowed Chicago with its most distinctive style, the ‘ Prairie School’, from a small studio in Oak Park. Wright’s Prairie Homes contrasted the grand edifices of the Chicago School with their modest low-slung horizon lines, flat roofs, overhanging eaves, unadorned open spaces and natural materials that mirrored the Midwestern landscape.
Excellent tours of Wright’s structures, which dot the city and outlying suburbs, can be set up through the Frank Lloyd Preservation Trust. And though the city’s monumental examples of the beaux arts and art deco movements are well documented in civic buildings dressed up in a mixed bag of Classical Roman and Greek elements, the city actually received its greatest modern architectural contribution in the years after WWII, when Ludwig Mies van der Rohe pioneered the new 'International Style'.
The steel frame that once revolutionized the Chicago skyline was again seminal, though now no longer hidden on the inside of walls – the International Style was all about exposed metal and glass, and represents most people’s image of the modern skyscraper.
The best way to learn about Chicago’s impressive parade of buildings is through a tour with the Chicago Architecture Foundation, which operates a number of walking and bus tours in the Loop and other neighbourhoods.
This article was originally published in June 2010. This article was refreshed in August 2012.