Saturday, June 17, 2017

Catastrophe and Catharsis

During WWII, my father was a forced laborer from Czechoslovakia, working and living in Berlin. Late in his life I talked to him in depth about what certainly had to be a harrowing experience, enduring not only the loss of his freedom, forced exile in the country that brutally occupied his own, and life under a tyrannical dictatorship, but also living in a city under constant bombardment courtesy of the Americans by day, and the British by night. "Oh it wasn't so bad..." he told me with a wry smile, "...I was a young man living in a city where all its male citizens were off at war." He didn't have to fill in the details.

Talk about making the best of a bad situation.

I thought of this the other day as I was doing some reading about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Through all the tremendous devastation and loss of life*, the city not only recovered, but it prospered. Only the hiccup of a nation-wide panic and brief depression in 1873 and 1874, prevented the city from being rebuilt in half a decade. By 1880 there was barely a trace of the fire at all.

"Chicago in Flames" The Great Fire of 1871
Hand colored Lithograph based upon a sketch by John R. Chapin
published by  Currier & Ives
That's not to say there was not great suffering for the survivors, many of whom with little or no resources found their lives would be never return to normal. Many Chicago Fire survivors left the city never to return. But far more came than left. Like my father who saw an opportunity and seized upon it in Berlin, people saw the tremendous opportunity of being part of rebuilding the devastated Chicago. Between the years 1870 and 1880, the population of the city nearly doubled to half a million residents. Ten years later, over one million people called Chicago home.

I've often thought about what Chicago would be like today had it not been for the fire. Mark Twain had the same thought 134 years ago:
New Orleans, I believe, has had the good luck--and in a sense the bad luck-- to have had no great fire in late years. It must be so. If the opposite had been the case, I think one would be able to tell the 'burnt district' by the radical improvement in its architecture over the old forms. One can do this in Boston and Chicago. 
In 1891, a writer for the journal Industrial Chicago put it more succinctly:
Those fires were fortunate events for the Garden City as a whole, and none profited directly from them, so much as art and architects,  for the flames swept away forever the greater number of monstrous libels on artistic house-building, while only destroying the few noble buildings of which Old Chicago could boast.
Would Chicago really be a much different place today without the Fire? After all, the die was cast for the contemporary city well before October of 1871. By then, all rail lines in the Midwest led to Chicago. At the same time, the Illinois/Michigan Canal was still operating, the only water transportation conduit between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. The grain elevators and the commodities exchanges, both invented here, that would forever change the way farmers got their product to market, were well established by the 1870s and would be back up and running in a nick of time. Chicago as the transportation hub of the midwest, was already a major center of manufacturing, and much of that was untouched by the Fire.

By 1871, much of the physical layout of Chicago had already been established. The massive undertaking of raising the street grade was well underway. Chicago's property lots and rigorous street grid had been conceived, if not already established throughout town, and the boulevard greenway system and parks that would ring what were at the time Chicago's city limits had begun to take shape. Thanks to Potter Palmer and his speculative investments, State Street became the main commercial street of Chicago, taking the place of Lake Street, and with that, the major axis of the city turned ninety degrees from east/west to north/south, following the lakefront.

The major obstacle to the practical construction of tall buildings was overcome in 1864 as the first steam driven elevator was installed in Chicago in the Charles B. Farwell Store in Wabash Avenue. That alone did not solve the second obstacle, making elevators safe enough for people to want to ride in them. Great steps were made in that direction in 1870 when the first hydraulic elevator was initialed in the Burley and Company Warehouse on West Lake Street. We know that those contraptions became accepted, albeit hesitantly by the general public from the accounts of people being rescued from stalled lifts in Chicago's posh hotels during the Fire.

Chicago is known around the world for its innovative architecture, especially in regards to the construction of tall, commercial buildings. As the Mark Twain and Industrial Chicago quotes sited above suggest, we have the Great Fire to thank for that. But is that true?

Once the elevator became commonplace, the urge to cram as much rentable space into a single lot became inevitable, especially in the highly valuable property of the central business district. The race to build taller buildings was well underway before that famous blaze began near Mrs. O'Leary's barn after that long hot, dry summer of 1871.

On top of that, most of the architects who would create the new architecture that became known as the Commercial Style or the Chicago School of Architecture, including Dankmar AdlerWilliam HolabirdMartin Roche, and Daniel Burnham already lived in Chicago as young men at the time of the Great Fire. With the exception of Adler, all of these future shapers of Chicago's built environment came through in one capacity or other, the office of William LeBaron Jenney, who before the Fire was responsible for among other things, the original design of the three great West Side parks, Humboldt, Central (later named Garfield) and Douglas, and the boulevards that connected them.

The earlier generation of architects responsible for many of the buildings of the pre-fire city, most notably John van Osdel and William Boyington were still active and quite busy after the Fire. The tallest buildings in Chicago until 1895, were the works of those two architects. In fact Chicago, the Second City which sprung up almost as soon as the ruins from the fire to began cool down, didn't look all that different from the First City. You can see for yourself as a number of 1870s post-fire buildings still exist, many of them concentrated just north of the River on Clark and Wells Streets. There you can still find in tact, buildings graced by Italianate facades that were the fashion of the day, before and after the fire.

So as we've seen, the groundwork for the Chicago we know today was clearly laid well before the Chicago Fire. Would it then be reasonable to say that the Fire was a mere setback, delaying what would have been the inevitable development of the current city?

Author Ross Miller in his book The Great Chicago Fire, argues no, the conflagration was in fact Chicago's seminal moment, a catharsis that allowed the city to wash away all its past mistakes, and start from scratch, enabling Chicago to become much greater city.

Barely four decades old at the  time of the fire, Chicago was already developing bad habits. The insatiable lust for instant profit meant little attention was given toward the future.

The children of the the pioneers who settled this city, the folks whose names you see streets named after, as so often is the case, became used to a comfortable life with little sense of obligation:
Seen from a  distance, pioneers like Butler and Ogden became models of respectability, combining Eastern education with the demands of Western settlement, They became the Chicago establishment. Set up in fine houses and rich enough for philanthropy, Chicago's first generation had time for pieties and church-going. Fortunes already in hand, they looked for ways to spend their money and perpetuate their newly minted good reputations. Their sons and daughters, with the pressure of making money removed, lacked any direction. ... Playboys and dilettantes, especially before the fire, appeared to be Chicago's legacy. 
The fire was a truly democratic catastrophe, it wiped out the homes of the rich and the poor alike. Of course with greater resources at their disposal, the rich had a far easier time to get back on their feet, but the fire created a bond between people living in Chicago in October 1871, those who lived anyway. They had all been tested by fire, and survived. Consequently, the term "Chicagoan" gained currency throughout the world. Quoting from the introduction to Robert Cromie's book of the same title, Miller throws in this tidbit:
You could tell a Chicagoan in any city of the world, for he would not talk a minute, scarcely until he would let you know he was from Chicago.
Before the Fire, outrageous land speculation led to tremendous fortunes won but mostly lost. Shoddy construction, haphazard building techniques, and simple lack of attention to detail, led to a city that was an eight square mile tinderbox, a disaster waiting to happen.
On a strictly economic and political basis, Chicago in the months and years after the fire could be shown to have made a startling correction for four decades of nearly random, unplanned development, ...Real estate speculators who had suffered severe losses might in the future be less reckless; their buildings would be made of better materials. The fire because it "checked the too rapid rebuilding of the city in all directions", would lead to a rebuilding of the city's central business district. In addition, by getting rid of failing or marginal businesses, the fire could be seen as a purifying act.
A fitting metaphor could be the fires that periodically sweep through the Midwestern prairies, ridding the land of dead plants and providing nutrients to the soil to insure strong and healthy new growth. Chicago of course, is built upon those very prairies.

Just as the fire's tremendous devastation was made possible by a great storm of concurrent unfortunate events, the recovery of the city was made possible because it came precisely at the crossroads of 19th century technological innovation and creativity.
Out of necessity, the city was compelled to welcome experimentation. Chicago was burned out of an earlier and relatively primitive form of industrialization into the most modern. In this environment, techniques that might have remained dormant under normal conditions of urban growth were perfected and them rigorously tested. 
Finally, it there is any doubt that the fire inexorably altered the direction of the course of this city, take a good look at the list of Chicago architects who lived in Chicago at the time of the Great Fire. They represent an honor roll of builders who shaped the look of the city in the last half of the 19th Century and beyond. But there are two prominent names missing from that list, both of whom came to Chicago because of the Fire.

They are Louis Sullivan and John Wellborn Root.

I'll deal with them in my next post in my series on the tall buildings of Chicago.

* Until fairly recent times, city-destroying conflagrations were not uncommon. What is something of a mystery is the very unpredictable death rate caused by such calamities. I've always assumed that the 300 or so who died in the Great Chicago Fire was a remarkably low number, given the ferociousness of the fire and the enormity of damage it left in its wake. That is until I discovered that during the Great London Fire of 1666, all of six people perished. On the other hand, during the earthquake and resulting fires in San Francisco in 1906, nearly 3,000 people died.

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