“Chicago in 1871 was a rather ramshackle affair, without a great deal of architectural distinction. While there was an immediate move to rebuild, there was little lamentation for the beauty or distinction of what was lost. Nor was there a memorable quality to the new construction that followed in the fire’s wake, which tended more to the efficient than the artful. Very few structures remain from that initial rebuilding, as the vast majority of those structures were destroyed by developers and architects building what we think of as the original Chicago school of architecture in the 1880s, 1890s and 1900s.
“Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, Frank Lloyd Wright and their many extraordinarily talented colleagues would mostly build their enduring visions of an ascendant new American architecture on the destruction of the more expedient structures that sprung up in the immediate wake of the fire in the 1870s.
“There is no question that the Great Chicago Fire was a cataclysmic event in the young city’s history and one worthy of continuing remembrance. But while the city and its denizens never cease to tout our architecture as a key civic asset, we still seem to revel in the wanton destruction of our built histories. From the utterly indefensible razing of Prentice Hospital in the last decade to the currently planned sale of the James R. Thompson Center as primarily a building site rather than a preservation opportunity, Chicago’s zeal for demolition often outpaces our interest in a genuine and enduring architectural legacy.
“It’s unfortunate that this seems to be the Great Fire’s greatest continuing role in our city—quietly and almost always unstated—justifying a continuing program of architectural destruction that outpaces any desire to build success upon success. It enables our profit-driven shortsightedness and posits that progress and creativity require wholesale destruction to take place—a false choice that we make over and over again.
“This happens at large and small scales across most neighborhoods in the city. Both the Lincoln Yards and Michael Reese sites were cleared of virtually all their histories before developers and architects started their new schemes. Even Fulton Market, where a number of old structures help establish a sense of place and context for newer buildings, has recently seen some remarkable and irreplaceable silo structures erased to enable easier and far less compelling new construction. And building by building, we see many older residential structures throughout the city demolished for bloated and far less interesting new homes.
“We need to encourage better architecture and urbanism via means that are primarily additive and accretive, with the subtractive means of demolition used carefully and seldom. Let’s stop using wide-scale destruction as a road to ‘progress.’ Those responsible for the physical design of this city need to embrace the rudimentary techniques of improvisational theater, asking ‘Yes, and . . .’ at every step of development.
“A new generation of preservationists is intent on saving structures beyond those most remarkable that we consider landmarks, an initiative that implores us to identify and embrace richer and more complex histories than just a handful of standout sites. This fertile endeavor suggests that we need to stop the continuing holocaust that has too often fueled our ‘greatest’ architectural achievements.
“It’s been 150 years since the fire. It’s well past time to stop Chicago’s seemingly perpetual lust for the destruction of our built environment.
“Edward Keegan is a Chicago architect and a contributing editor to Architect Magazine.” (Keegan, Crain’s Chicago Business, 9/23/21)
Crain’s Op-Ed: Flames that still flicker and destroy; For 15 decades, Chicago architects and city leaders have invoked the phoenix-like rising of the city from the ashes of the Great Fire. This dominant mythology helps fuel historical arcs deeply ingrained in our civic psyche, Edward Keegan, Crain’s Chicago Business, 9/23/21