Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire which set the city ablaze on October 8, 1871.The folklore suggests that the fire destroyed the whole city, clearing the land and allowing the city to be rebuilt as we see it today. But in fact, what most people do not know, is that there was a second Chicago fire, in 1874, and it was not until after the 1874 blaze, that fire safety codes were enacted that changed the way Chicago was rebuilt. After the first Chicago Fire, citizens and business began to rebuild immediately but using wood, the same construction materials commonly used before the fire, and using similar architectural styles.
After the second Chicago fire in 1874, new fire safety codes were enacted, prohibiting wooden structures. Architects and builders began using terracotta, stone, brick, limestone, and marble in place of the wooden structures so easily destroyed by fire.
The Palmer House, still an iconic landmark today, was one of the first structures built using Chicago terracotta – a soon to be classic style. The builders claimed the Palmer House was one of Chicago’s first fire-proof structures.
In addition, safety codes were enacted requiring wider streets, fireproof stairwells, maximum capacity restrictions, clear exit signage, clear exiting through doorways, and essential fire exits. Interestingly, one of the still current safeguards enacted after the Chicago Fire requires all exit doors to open outwards, because having to pull doors inward was blamed for causing many of the human casualties during the Great Chicago Fire.
With the reconstruction of the city, the economy began to flourish, and the rebuild was complete by 1880.With the new safety and building codes in place, the construction of bigger and taller buildings became possible and the introduction of Chicago skyscrapers followed a few years later. The first Chicago skyscraper was completed in 1885.
Chicago’s legend as a “Phoenix City” following the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 is a source of great pride and tradition. Indeed, the foresight and creativity of the city planners was unparalleled earning the city the opportunity to host the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1892, just twenty-two years after the fire. This exhibition would invite citizens and leaders from all over the world to the shores of Lake Michigan. It was an amazing prospect and a chance to demonstrate to resilience and grit of the city’s citizens and leaders to the millions of visitors. The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1892, also known as “Chicago’s Fair,” was a resplendent exhibition and presented the world with our beautiful city, risen from the ashes.