Mrs. O’Leary’s Fire and What it Did for Chicago

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Chicago’s summer of 1871 was a scorcher.  Legend has it that the Great Fire of that year started in Mrs. O’Leary’s  barn on the south side of the city, when her cow knocked a kerosene lantern into some hay which ignited some wood, which set the city ablaze and … the rest you know.  Chicago was left in ruins.   The cause of the outbreak may be debated but the facts are well documented: over 300 dead, 100,000 left  homeless, and nearly 18,000 buildings burnt to the ground. For decades it had been a tough city – and a rich one – but not even Chicago could have foreseen that what would spring from the ashes would one day come to be considered the greatest outdoor museum of modern architecture in the world.

Immediately after the fire innovative young architects from all over the world poured into the city.  They devised new ways of building on Chicago’s swampy land, found ways of firming up the foundations and experimented with new methods of steel-framed construction.  A Mr. Otis invented the hydraulic lift, and in 1885 the first skyscraper was erected and Chicago became a vertical city.

We’ve been looking up to it ever since.

Entertainment in Chicago

Check into almost any downtown hotel and you’ll find yourself in the midst of a skyscraper forest, cheek by jowl with awe-inspiring architecture,  from the neo-Gothic Chicago Tribune building to the 100-storey Hancock Centre and the 110-storey Sears Tower.  The Observation Deck that tops this lures 1.5 million people a year to gaze at a cityscape that can only be described as awesome.  Seen on a cloudy day from either of these buildings the effect is dreamlike, as the clouds that you can almost reach out and touch drift in and out among the towers.

Not all entertainment is up in the clouds though.  Chicago has one of the best shopping streets in the world, Michigan Drive, the Magic Mile or Magmile to the locals call it.  There is the Shedd Aquarium on Lakeshore Drive, the nearby Adler Planetarium and the Navy Pier with its Ferris wheel, cinema, ice-skating, theatre and shops.   Trolleybus tour of the Lakefront, Oak Drive and various neighbourhoods offers viewing of a series of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, usually enhanced by snippets of history in easily digested soundbites from the driver.

The Mobs and Prohibition

But even he clammed up when I asked him about Chicago’s relationship with the mobs, for the locals are somewhat reluctant to talk about their gangster past.  Most would prefer to forget Chicago’s long association with the mobsters and their bloody feuds for control of the licquor supply during prohibition.

A few landmarks remain.  Capone’s home still stands at 7244 Prairie Avenue, but the garage that was the scene of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre has been demolished.   One of Capone’s favourite speakeasies at the time of his power, the Green Mill Tavern on North Broadway in the heart of the city’s clubland, is now a swanky Blues Club and shares a reputation for great jazz with Blue Chicago and House of Blues, but there are dozens of smaller clubs dotted around the city, listings for which cover five pages in a free sheet called The Reader: gospel and R. & B. take up another three.

Apart from jazz, there’s a wealth of evening entertainment in Chicago, the best of which after a hard day’s sightseeing is The Second City, the original stand-up comedy club and the forerunner of all comedy clubs around the world.  The atmosphere is relaxed and easy, snacks and full bar service available at your table, and it attracts an appreciative and receptive audience of mixed ages for cutting-edge satire.  If your taste runs to avant garde theatre then the brilliant Steppenwolf Group Theatre (equivalent to London’s  Royal Court) will not let you down.  Chicagoans love the summer and celebrate it with a variety of free concerts under the stars in Grant Park, ranging from classical to country, zydeco to Cajun.


In 1909, Daniel H. Burnham, the then creative planner and architect of the city  said “Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood….” and ever since then Chicagoan architects have thought big.  But don’t be overwhelmed by the city’s size.  There are corners that feel like villages and ethnic neighbourhoods where diversity is celebrated.   So feast your eyes on green-tinted glass buildings reflecting terracotta skyscrapers, and gaze upward at elegant curtains of aluminium and bronze.

For this is architecture to stir men’s blood.

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