In 1871, most of Chicago burnt down. The summer had been really dry, and the city’s wooden houses were a matchbox waiting to be lit. There had been small fires all summer, and it was only a matter of time before the city erupted in a major blaze. Around 9pm on Sunday, October 8, a fire began that eventually consumed an area about four miles long, encompassing more than 2,000 acres. It destroyed more than 17,500 buildings and $222 million in property. Of the 300,000 inhabitants, 90,000 were left homeless.
The traditional account for the origin of the fire is that it was started by a cow kicking over a lantern in the barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O’Leary. Mrs. O’Leary and her cow were quickly vilified, but this was more a reflection of anti-immigrant sentiment at the time than a real cause. The city did absolve Mrs. O’Leary and her cow of any wrongdoing—in the 1990s!
But out of this tragedy, the city was built anew with wider streets, steel and brick buildings, and more green space. Chicago architecture remains some of the best in the world. Beginning in the early 1880s, architectural pioneers of the Chicago School explored steel-frame construction and the use of large areas of plate glass. Chicago had some of the first modern skyscrapers. William LeBaron Jenney’s Home Insurance Building is often considered to be the first to use steel in its structural frame instead of cast iron. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School influenced both building and furnishing designs. Folks like George Fuller also helped shape architecture and design. Much of Chicago is in this late 19th century/early 20th century American Gothic style that was the definitive style for many buildings across the country.
I was lucky enough to find myself in this architectural wonderland at the end of July for TBEX. While driving across the US in 2006, I also finished my journey here. The city left a lasting impression on me, and I was happy to visit again.
While the city is famous for a number of reasons, its biggest draws today are its green spaces and architectural beauty. There are many green spaces and parks throughout the city—the most famous being Grant and Millennium Park, home to the famous Chicago Bean. Chicago has been “greening” itself in hopes of being the country’s most environmentally friendly city. There’s even a rooftop garden on top of City Hall. For me, Chicago’s most striking feature is its architecture. It has one of the most beautiful skylines in the country. Wide streets lined with American Gothic buildings and modern steel high rises make for stunning visual images and awe-inspiring photos.
However, my trip wasn’t solely spent waxing romantically over the architecture while walking in the parks. With my Chicago Press Book in hand, I was determined to see as many sites as I could, especially since they were free. I explored the Chicago Aquarium, which also provides excellent views of the city. Sadly, though, it doesn’t provide excellent information about the fish it features. I also found it to be too geared towards kids having a good time and less about providing solid information, especially about the poor state of our oceans. The displays looked like they contained a lot of detailed information, but I walked away without knowing much more than common knowledge information. Go for the fun, not the facts!
As I museum lover, I made sure to visit quite a few. Though the details of me walking around museums are quite boring, I will nevertheless say the art museum near Millennium Park has an amazing impressionist wing. I was very impressed with their Monet collection.
My favorite adventure in Chicago was to Navy Pier. Never having been, I was eager to check out this famous place before I left. Navy Pier is sort of like a carnival in a city. It contains some rides, a Ferris wheel, lots of restaurants, a Shakespeare theater, boat tours, an oddly large number of beer gardens, and even miniature golf. While the place itself is a little campy, with so many things to do there, it seems like a good place to walk around on a nice day, have a drink, take the kids, or go on a date.
Chicago’s beauty is everywhere and in everything. Moving at a relaxed and slow pace, even during rush hour, Chicago always feels like Saturday. Because of its beautiful architecture, green space, and delicious food, Chicago is one of my favorite American cities (third behind NYC and Boston). No visit will ever get old.
For more information on the United States, visit my country and city guides to US travel.