Chicago: City Built by Flames

Arguably one of the largest American disasters of the 19th century, The Great Fire of 1871 proved to be a major turning point in the early history of Chicago, Illanoise. By the time the steady drizzle of soaking rains put the fire to rest in the early morning hours of October 10, 1871, the fire had burned for nearly 2 whole days, destroyed 1/3 of the city and the entire central business district, caused an estimated $222 million in property damage, and taken the lives of approximately 200 – 300 individuals.

Lucky for all, the city’s industrial base remained intact, enabling local businessmen to finance the massive and rapid rebuilding that ensued. The city’s subsequent growth, aided in no small part by its pre-fire economic momentum, commercial ties, and unique geographic location, thrust the “The Second City” into the limelight – becoming one of the fastest growing and economically important American and international cities at the time.

A recent visit to “The Windy City” left me feeling numb. Thirty-degree temperatures (that’s Fahrenheit) with Lake Michigan wind chills that made it closer to 25 were not the cause for numbness. The Maui Wowie wasn’t either. The numbness came at the sudden realization of the importance a city’s history – and the knowledge of that history amongst its citizens and constituents – play on its future. It also came from the impressive architectural playground created by architects like William Le Baron Jenney, John Root, William Holabird, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and later Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Architects who not only played an instrumental part in establishing the city’s strive for architectural excellence – still evident today – but also created and established the world-renown Chicago School and Prairie styles of architecture that paved the way for the likes of Bertrand Goldberg, Bruce Graham, Adrian Smith, and architectural firms like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill | Graham, Anderson, Probst & White | and Kohn Pederson, & Fox to leave their mark on the diverse Chicago skyline.


That mark and that skyline may have never come to fruition if not for two individuals who best define the spirit of Chicago, retailing pioneer and mail order magnate, Aaron Montgomery Ward, and architect/urban planner Daniel Burnham.

Aaron Montgomery Ward, of Montgomery Ward department store fame,

Sidebar #1: If my mind serves me correctly, I think there used to be a Montgomery Ward at Midway Mall, Mall of the Americas to those not fortunate enough to have learned to roller skate – yes, on 4 wheels – at Super Skating Center across the street, which today is home to La Catedral del Pueblo (I always thought it would be a good idea to skate my way through the aisle in the middle of the preacher’s sermon to see if he and his congregation “got it”, but anyways…). There may have been another one on Biscayne Blvd in front of the Omni in what now serves as office space for the wonderful Miami-Dade County Public Schools (“el esculbor”). I am not 100% sure.

is commonly noted for his keen business acumen and the invention of mail order. Although not seen as such at the time, Ward is perhaps the most significant figure in the history of Chicago – the one who laid the foundation for what was to come.

A staunch advocate of open green space preservation, he went to court three times between 1890 and 1909 to get Chicago’s lakefront cleared off and preserved as public park space. Nearly twenty years and $200,000 (of his own money) later, Ward single-handedly forced the city to create and maintain what is now the 200-acre lakefront Grant Park – all the while dealing with hostile opposition from politicians, civic leaders, and local newspapers who wanted to develop the downtown lakefront with municipal buildings, including a new city hall, and saw Ward as a major “thorn” on their side.

In the only interview he granted his nemesis, The Chicago Tribune, in 1909 after the Supreme Court upheld his achievements, Ward stated, “I fought for the poor people of Chicago, not the millionaires. Perhaps I may yet see the public appreciate my efforts, but I doubt it”.

A bronze sculpture with his bust, distinguished by his prominent mustache, faces Michigan Avenue in the gardens named after him in Grant Park. The people of Chicago are forever grateful for his efforts.

Sidebar #2: If I were a native Chicagoan, I’d name my first-born after him. Come to think of it, Montgomery Salgado has a certain ring to it, boy or girl.

Chosen to be the Director of Works of the World Columbian Exposition in 1893 (aka The Chicago World Fair), Daniel Burnham seized the opportunity to create what many historians consider to be the first comprehensive planning document in the nation. Designed to follow the principles of European Classical architecture and located primarily in Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance (today the southern end of the University of Chicago campus) in the South Side, the Exposition drew over 27 million people – half the U.S. population at the time – over the six months it was open and became the prototype for how municipal art, magnificent parks, public gathering places, pedestrian friendly boulevards, and masterfully designed architecture shape a city’s self image, self-confidence, and civic pride.

Considered an instant success, The World Fair served as the precursor to The Plan of Chicago. Commonly referred to as The Burnham Plan after its principal author (the plan embodies the work of many others as well), The Plan of Chicago came into existence in October 1906 when Daniel Burnham was commissioned by the Merchants Club to come up with a detailed plan for a city whose population had swelled past 2 million.

So motivated and enthusiastic was Burnham to create the Plan that he agreed to give his time gratis and limit his expenses to $25,000 for everything – except the expense of editing and publishing a final report to present to the public, for which he volunteered $10,000 of his own money in order to have it printed “in more attractive form with ample illustrations in color” (homeboy understood the importance of graphic design – in 1909).

The city the Plan saw as the model of urban design was Paris (casi nada). The Plan explicitly praises Georges Eugene Hausmann, the man whose vision designed the magical city that is present-day Paris, as well as Napoleon, the man who chose Hausmann for the job. Paris, states the Plan, was chosen as a model because “as it (Paris) increased in population, the city grew according to a well-devised, symmetrical, highly developed plan, the only costs being artistic sense and foresight”.

Ever the visionary, Burnham realized that Chicago’s growth, due to congestion and pollution, was reaching a point of diminishing returns. The Plan’s initial focus – improving commercial facilities, transportation, traffic flow, and general convenience – would require a productive labor force. And a productive labor force, he argued, requires comfortable homes and pleasant surroundings just like everybody else. The city needed to be seen as a place to live, rest, play, as well as a place to work. Create a proud city (knowing a city’s history is a major ingredient), and you create a productive one as well.

More importantly, Daniel Burnham understood that Chicago would not and could not expect to attract and keep the wage-earners required to power the industries and staff the offices needed to create a robust and self-sufficient local economy. In an earlier letter to his father-in-law and confidant, John B. Sherman, he stated “…the town (Chicago) should immediately put on a charming dress and thus stop our people from running away, and bring rich people here (to live), rather than have them go elsewhere to spend their money”.

A daunting task, Burnham immediately set out to collect the preliminary data and relevant information necessary to understand the current conditions and make future projections for the city. The purpose of the Plan, after all, was to “anticipate the needs of the future as well as to provide for the necessities of the present”.

With the necessary and relevant detailed information at hand, Burnham was able to devise a plan that looked to beautify Chicago by improving the infrastructure and exploiting the natural resources that were both crucial to the economic vitality of the city. The Plan, keep in mind, was a very complex undertaking that required the efforts of many people. In order for it to work, detailed analysis of any and every economic indicator had to be accounted for at a time when the telephone (landlines, not cellular phones) was in its infancy.

Its main points and the ones that needed immediate attention, Burnham argued were:

  • Improving the flow of traffic and the city’s rectangular street grid by widening major streets, designing diagonal roadways that cut through the grid in order to speed up movement in all directions, and most importantly, the widening, elevating, and transformation of Michigan Avenue via a double-level bridge over the Chicago River that turned Michigan Avenue into a continuous boulevard linking the North and South Sides of Chicago.
  • Preserving the future of the lakefront (Lake Michigan) and developing the shoreline as a public park while increasing per capita acreage dedicated to conveniently located parks throughout the city.
  • Introducing streetcars along the major roads in the city’s grids, grids that are generally a half-mile apart.
  • Erecting, elevating, and merging previously separate public rapid transit lines.
  • Implementing the necessary sanitary precautions to reduce pollution and avoid contamination of the water supply and avoidable health problems.

If the World Columbian Exposition in 1893 served as the precursor to The Plan of Chicago, The Plan of Chicago served as the precursor to modern day life in Chicago, a city with a long heritage of planning and unrivaled architecture. That heritage is the gift that Daniel Burnham left for the future generations of Chicago, a gift that keeps on giving. A very wealthy and well-to-do man when he undertook this great project, he chose to leave a legacy behind; a story to be shared by grandfathers with their sons, fathers with their daughters, and teachers with their students.

Which, of course, leads me to wonder:

Besides the for-profit railroad, what legacy did Henry M. Flagler leave behind?

What plan did William Brickell leave for the children of Miami? Can I get a copy at the Historical Museum in Downtown (we do have one, by the way – a museum that is)?

What open public bayfront green space did Roddey Burdine fight for? Can I go jogging in a straight line for more than 1 mile on that green space?

Why on earth does Julia Tuttle only have a 4-mile causeway (I-195) named after her when she’s the one who persuaded Henry M. Flagler to bring his railroad down here? Can someone please name a high school after this woman. Ronald Reagan got one before she did for “crissakes”!

Look, I’m not saying that it was their “job” to do these things. Maybe they did attempt to do some, maybe all, of these things, but were unable to accomplish anything due to political, economical, and/or environmental reasons. Maybe it was just too damn hot to get anything done. I don’t know. Maybe Dr. Paul George can answer that for us.

What I do know is this. The history of this city continues to repeat itself. The same mistakes are constantly repeated “administration” after “administration”. We allow the same tired leaders to make the same tired promises and never hold them accountable when they fail to deliver. In fact, in most cases we allow them to be re-elected. I don’t mind, I really don’t, if local politicians grease their pockets in the back room deals that take place on the regular in this and in most cities throughout the world. I do mind, however, when local politicians grease their pockets and do absolutely nothing to improve my city’s efficiency. Can somebody tell me where my half-penny is? I need to buy a quart of milk.

“What’s gonna happen with the local real estate market?” is a question I encounter quite often.

What’s gonna happen with the local real estate market? I don’t know. What’s happening with your life? How are you living? People act like the real estate market is this thing that exists outside of one’s self, when in actuality it’s part of the invisible hand that Adam Smith figured out in 1776.

So the next time you ask yourself that question, ask yourself “what am I doing?”, “where am I going?”, “what am I doing to make this the proud city that my children will share with my grandchildren?”.

Adrian Salgado is a Realtor Associate with RED I Realty in Miami, FL and can be reached at 305-491-7179 or


Filed under Chicago

7 responses to “Chicago: City Built by Flames

  1. Raul Estrada

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, feelings, and allowing others to pondering thoughts on the importance of smart urban grow. Maybe one day, just one day, Miami residents and leaders will succesfully pull off a successful project. Maybe one day, we will canoe down the Miami River from Sewell Park? Maybe one day, I will hop on the Metro Rail and get to the airport? Maybe one day, I’ll go to Burdines, I mean Macy’s, in Downtown for some shopping, coffee, and a movie? Maybe one day, I could see Andrea Bocelli at the Operah House at the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts instead of at the Hard Rock? Maybe one day, this young city will share some of the triumphs of Chicago and one day we too can share these expriences with our children’s children.

  2. Adrian Salgado


    I just had a shot of Jagermeister to that.

    The kayak and my bus pass are ready to go. I can’t wait to see what the next 10 years will bring. It should be lots of fun.

  3. Juan


    Being originally from Santiago, Chile where I lived until I migrated to this country back in 1975, settling in Southern California (Santa Monica, Torrance, West Los Angeles among other communities), and now an eleven years resident of Miami; I applaud (almost envy ?)your sense of belonging.

    After reading several of your blogs, I can almost touch your sense of ownership, honest concern and pride you have about this city.

    I know prior to your writings, I did not always pay much attention (did not care ?) about the importance of my urban surroundings. As long as I could get what I needed, the city served its purpose!! Things like pollution, traffic congestion (road rage ?) and other woes of urban growth did not really matter…(wake up and smell the coffee, Juan !)

    Thank you for your insights; thank you for waking up a sense of civic responsibility I did not want understand before.
    I certainly hope your writings are reaching and changing people’s views about this topic.

    Let me know when we can take that canoe trip down the river…I’d love to join you guys.

  4. Pingback: Miami: A Tropical Chicago? « Miami Real Estate Blog

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  6. Kyle

    What, Chicago? You are only 6 hours away from the best city in the midwest – Minneapolis, MN the city of Lakes…. Come on up for a visit!

  7. Pingback: If Obama gets the Olympics to Chicago in 2016, put that fool on Mt Rushmore ASAP - Page 3 - Best Talk On The Web

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