In the second half of the 1800s, Chicago was growing rapidly and recognized as a world-class city. The confluence of nature and humanity would collide, however, and set the city back 100 years in a catastrophic disaster that haunts its residents today. From the ashes of that event emerged a legendary effort, and a landmark, which today is still a marvel and a thing of beauty.
Can a building have a legacy? It can. As can its dreamers, financiers, architects, and builders. This is the story of one such outcome.
Chicago was growing. Over the period 1833-1871 Chicago experienced rapid economic expansion, and this growth, with its accompanying prosperity, was the central concern of the general population.
Politically, the national issues of slavery and states’ rights dominated, with the majority opposing the institution of slavery and its expansion. The social development of the city was many-faceted. Foreign-born immigrants equaled the native-born population, abject poverty contrasted with spectacular affluence, and social order was unevenly imposed as a boomtown evolved into a major metropolis.
When Chicago was incorporated as a town by the Illinois state legislature in 1833, its population was approximately 300 people. By 1871, when only a quarter of the nation’s population lived in urban areas, and fewer than nine percent lived in centers with populations over 250,000, Chicago had grown to 334,270 residents. It ranked behind only New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. Its phenomenal growth was due to its geographical location, developments in technology, and the westward and southern expansion of the nation in general.
The site of Chicago had long been recognized as a strategic one, because it sat at the junction of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, plus, it contained the best port on the southwestern end of the lake. Also, without much effort, the Chicago River could be made to connect with the Illinois River and thus the Mississippi River. Chicago’s potential to become the center of an expansive water system connecting the East of the country with the West prompted the federal government to establish Fort Dearborn at the Chicago site in 1803 in order to protect it from foreign interests.
Additionally, the American farmer of the 1850s was no longer the simple independent agrarian that Founder Thomas Jefferson had admired. Besides the forces of nature, he had to concern himself with large scales, graders, storage elevators, and warehouse operators, rail and water carriers, local haulers, insurers, moneylenders, and suppliers. Chicago was becoming the shipping capital of the U.S. By 1860, Chicago was Illinois’ largest city with 109,260 residents. Yes, Chicago was growing.
Construction was booming, with more than two thirds of the structures in Chicago at the time made entirely of wood. Most of the houses and buildings were topped with tar or shingle roofs. All of the city’s sidewalks and many roads were also made of wood.
Tragically, Chicago received only 1 inch of rain from July 4 to October 9, 1871, causing severe drought conditions. The wood construction and dry conditions converged, and ultimately consumed Chicago. It was a perfect storm for the ages.
The Great Chicago Fire was a conflagration that burned from Sunday, October 8, to Tuesday, October 10, 1871. Strong southwest winds helped to carry flying embers toward the heart of the city. The fire killed up to 300 people, destroyed roughly 3.3 square miles of Chicago, and left more than 100,000 residents homeless.
On that hot, dry, and windy autumn day, three other major fires occurred along the shores of Lake Michigan at the same time as the Great Chicago Fire. Some 250 miles to the north, the Peshtigo Fire consumed the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, along with a dozen other villages. It killed 1,200 to 2,500 people and charred approximately 1.5 million acres.
The Peshtigo Fire remains the deadliest in American history but the remoteness of the region meant it was little noticed at the time, due to the fact that one of the first things that burned were the telegraph lines to Green Bay.
Across the lake to the east, the town of Holland, Michigan, and other nearby areas burned to the ground. Some 100 miles north of Holland, the lumbering community of Manistee also went up in flames in what became known as The Great Michigan Fire.
Farther east, along the shore of Lake Huron, the Port Huron Fire swept through Port Huron, Michigan, and much of Michigan’s “Thumb”. On October 9, 1871, a fire swept through the city of Urbana, Illinois, 140 miles south of Chicago, destroying portions of its downtown area. Windsor, Ontario, likewise burned on October 12.
The city of Singapore, Michigan, provided a large portion of the lumber to rebuild Chicago. As a result, the area was so heavily deforested, that the land deteriorated into barren sand dunes and the town had to be abandoned.
Mother Nature and mankind’s lack of understanding set the stage for change and opportunity in a significant way. From these disasters, new technology and a way of living would rise.
After the Great Chicago Fire, a quickly constructed temporary building was used as an interim Chicago City Hall at the corner of LaSalle and Adams Streets, built around a large water tank that had survived the fire.
By 1888, a new building, The Rookery Building, a building that would change the face of the city, would be erected on that corner, setting new building standards across the country and eventually become a National Landmark.
In the architectural boom that followed the Great Chicago Fire, architects in what would become known as the Chicago School of Commercial Architecture competed with each other to create the world’s first true skyscrapers. By mixing modern building techniques, such as metal framing, fireproofing, elevators, and plate glass, together with traditional ones, such as brick facades and elaborate ornamentation, Burnham and Root sought to create a bold architectural statement.
Located at 209 South LaSalle Street, completed by visionaries John Wellborn Root and Daniel Burnham, The Rookery Building is considered a Burnham and Root masterpiece. The building is 181 feet high, twelve stories tall, and is considered the oldest standing high-rise in Chicago. It has a unique style with exterior load-bearing walls and an interior steel frame, which provided a transition between accepted and new building techniques. The Rookery Building, which is a combination of iron framing and masonry bearing walls, marked a transition from masonry load-bearing structures to steel skeleton load-bearing structures. It was a first.
Famed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright remodeled the lobby in 1905. The building was designated a Chicago Landmark on July 5, 1972, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 17, 1970 and listed as a National Historic Landmark on May 15, 1975. In fact, the Landmarks Commission citation commends “development of the skeleton structural frame using cast iron columns, wrought iron spandrel beams, and steel beams to support party walls and interior floors.”
The name of the building, however, may be its most unique gift. Its name is an allusion to the old City Hall building that occupied the land after the fire before The Rookery was built. That building, the temporary City Hall for a devastated city in pain, was nicknamed “The Rookery,” in reference to the crows and pigeons that flocked to its exterior – a constant nuisance to the citizens – but also because of the shady politicians it housed, given a rook’s reputation for acquisitiveness.
Although several names were considered when the new, historic and high-tech structure on the site was proposed, “The Rookery” won out – and so it stands today, over 100 years later. The local Chicago press and its citizens would have it no other way.
And this is why, Legacy Matters…
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