- Historic Sites
Chicago: The Giants’ Footprints
November 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 7
Nevertheless, the Glessner family remained in its unique house until 1930 and apparently delighted in it. There is an unforgettable photograph of Mrs. Glessner’s reading club posing for a portrait on the stairway leading to the garden—a group of about fifteen ladies, who must have represented a substantial part of Chicago’s wealth. The club met every Monday morning for three hours—the first for serious reading, the second for light reading, and the last hour for coffee and socializing.
A total shift of mood from the old residential district is Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, the name of a stretch of Michigan Avenue running due north from the Chicago River. It is Chicago’s fashionable shopping and business section and includes much of the city’s most modern architecture. It also includes the Water Tower, the only public building in Chicago to survive the Great Fire. Built in 1869, two years before the disaster, this warty, Gothic structure, surrounded by turrets, was intended to disguise a 150-foot-tall water-storage standpipe. Today it seems a delightfully incongruous structure in the midst of sleek, modern Michigan Avenue.
A history-minded visitor to the city comes to realize that the most astonishing thing about the Great Fire was how fast the city recovered from it. The fire started on October 8, 1871, somewhere near the barn in which Mrs. O’Leary was supposed to have been milking her cow, and it burned for several days, gutting the heart of the city, killing hundreds of people, and leaving one-third of the inhabitants homeless (though the O’Leary house was untouched). The fire jumped the river and burned through the roof of the central pumping station, effectively ending the city’s ability to fight the flames. Rain finally put the fire out.
But as I learned from a movie at Chicago’s historical society, the fire acted as adrenaline for the young entrepreneurial city. Twenty-eight banks were destroyed by the fire, but two days later twelve of them were again ready to extend credit to the city’s businessmen. Within a year three thousand buildings had been erected. The city’s architectural eminence dates from this time.
By today’s standards, Chicago’s millionaires were hardly beneficent employers, but they lavished money unstintingly on their city’s cultural institutions as well as on their houses and commercial buildings. For instance, in addition to the Art Institute, to which every prominent Chicago family seems to have contributed, there is the Museum of Science and Industry, into which Julius Rosenwald (of Sears, Roebuck) poured $7,500,000 (which would be approximately $150,000,000 today), and the Field Museum of Natural History, which was started and later maintained with more than $9,000,000 of Marshall Field’s department store money. In 1886, when the city needed a proper concert hall, the civic leaders hired Adler & Sullivan to build the Auditorium, still one of the acoustical marvels of the country (the singer Nellie Melba once said, “I wish I could fold it up and take it with me everywhere”). And perhaps most amazing of all is the University of Chicago, which was created practically overnight in 1891 on ten acres of land provided by Marshall Field, with $35,000,000 of Standard Oil money given by John D. Rockefeller and another $4,500,000 of Rosenwald contributions.
The great Chicago fire of 1871 acted as adrenaline for the young entrepreneurial city.
Just as nineteenth-century Chicagoans selected the most famous architects to build their city, twentieth-century civic leaders have chosen the best-known artists to decorate their public spaces. Included within the Loop are a gorgeous red Calder stabile, Flamingo; a seventy-foot-long Chagall mosaic; a graceful Miró figure of a woman; a large Dubuffet; and my favorite, a soaring Picasso statue. There is disagreement about what this huge sculpture represents—but its russet brown blends perfectly with the Daley Center behind it, and when I was there, small children were happily sliding down one of its interior surfaces.
These public sculptures are not, to be sure, direct footprints from Chicago’s golden age of millionaires, but they are a statement of the city’s power and opulence that the Fields, the Palmers, and the McCormicks would surely have applauded.