While our plans for building the first vessel of its kind anywhere in the world – a floating island – may seem enormous, daunting and maybe even impossible, we are by no means the first Chicagoans to tackle a massive undertaking. Many of us are familiar with the name Burnham, and some are familiar with how the Burnham Plan came to be, but the details are fascinating and they bear repeating. It all starts with a theoretical Mrs. O’Leary and her infamous cow.
Nothing in Chicago escaped the effects of the Great Fire of 1871. Not even Lake Michigan. In a three-day conflagration, the boomtown of middle America, the grain and meat distribution capital of the country, and the central transportation hub of the nation was reduced to rubble. In devastation that was said to have surpassed Napoleon's siege of Moscow, surprisingly few people lost their lives. No more than 300 died in the Great Chicago Fire, not because of any advanced firefighting or life-saving technology, but because those fleeing the flames could take indefinite refuge in the Lake. Furthermore, the freshwater was potable, though somewhat dirty, sustaining entire families until the blaze finally died down.
There was never any question that Chicago would rebuild. Its location, its economic importance, and its population demanded that reconstruction of the city begin almost immediately. Indeed, Chicago soon adopted the motto “I Will” as a demonstration of its determination to rise from the ashes. But the first question was what to do with those very ashes and all the rubble of destroyed buildings left in the fire’s wake. In a time without environmental sensitivity or any real appreciation for aquatic biology, the decision about what to do with the remains of Old Chicago was obvious: push it all into the Lake.
The natural shoreline of Lake Michigan is the aptly named Michigan Avenue. From the city’s founding in 1837 to the time of the fire in 1871, Michigan Avenue was the location of the most expensive real estate in Chicago, situated directly on the shores of Lake Michigan. Lavish private homes occupied most of the area, since the loading docks for cargo ships were located up and down the Chicago River. Because of its elegance, prior to the fire the avenue was called Michigan Boulevard and given the nickname “Boul Mich,” to draw parallels with Paris’ Boulevard Saint-Michel. After the fire, there was nothing left of Boul Mich, and its stately homes along with the wreckage of all the buildings west of it were plowed directly into Lake Michigan.
The current of the Lake flows from north to south. This has the effect of pushing sand, silt, and debris down toward Chicago from points farther up the Lake. To this day, when anything is built out into the Lake from Chicago – even something as simple as a thin sea wall – the Lake immediately begins silting up around it and, in essence, creating new land. This is precisely what began to happen immediately in 1871 to the fire debris field east of Michigan Avenue. And it was only a matter of several months before that wasteland had become a wide-open expanse of unused and highly valuable new land in the heart of Chicago.
The question soon arose as to who owned all this prime new land. The first to start building out on the fresh land which the Lake had made, was the Illinois Central Railroad. Now trains could be brought straight to the Chicago River without cutting through the congestion of the city. Along with the tracks, roundhouses, offices, and warehouses were being built directly on the lakeshore. This was immensely unpopular with the wealthy residents who had rebuilt their homes along Michigan Avenue. Whereas they had once enjoyed an unobstructed view of the Lake, they were now looking out at an increasingly industrialized new district. The residents, led by department store and mail-order tycoon Montgomery Ward, took the railroad to court in order to stop the lakeshore from being taken over by industrial interests. The State of Illinois eventually took up the residents’ argument and advanced it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which ruled in 1892 that the land could not be taken over for any private use. Over the course of the last 124 years, that has preserved Chicago’s lakefront as open parkland, as opposed to the industrial and warehouse districts that take up the waterfront in all other American cities. Chicago borders Lake Michigan for 29 miles, of which only four are not open space.
One year after the Supreme Court declared the Lake Michigan shore off-limits to anything but the “people’s” interests, Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition. This was an international fair and gathering to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus discovering the Americas. It was also meant to showcase the amazing rebuilding of Chicago that had turned it from a ruin in 1871 to the fastest growing city in the world just 22 years later. The Exposition saw the construction of a number of monumental buildings just south of downtown Chicago. This was called the White City because all the edifices were designed in the Neoclassical style and painted a brilliant white. The primary architect, not only of the White City, but also of many of the famous new buildings in Chicago as well as in other cities across America, was Daniel H. Burnham.
In 1909, Burnham published a comprehensive plan for the continuing redevelopment and physical reorganization of Chicago. His plan called for everything from a realignment and widening of the streets, to the construction of a series of cultural centers around the city. But the centerpiece of the Burnham Plan was a comprehensive rearrangement of the lakefront. As part of his vision, Burnham publicized the essence of the Supreme Court’s 1892 decision preserving the Lake and its land for the use and enjoyment of all the people: “The Lakefront by right belongs to the people…not a foot of its shores should be appropriated to the exclusion of the people.” However, the Burnham Plan called for the construction of dedicated industrial harbors to take the bulk of shipping away from “The People’s” shoreline.
The same current that created new land on the shore of Chicago also scours the existing coast line smooth. The result is that there are no natural harbors in Chicago. But the preservation of the lakefront for public use has spurred a century of harbor-building for recreational sailors and boaters. From Montrose Harbor in the north to Jackson Park Harbor in the south, and including the more recently built 31st Street Harbor in between, Chicago has 10 manmade harbors accommodating 6,000 boats. This is the largest municipal harbor system in the United States.
Though certainly an unmitigated disaster at the time, the Great Fire of 1871 permitted the rebuilding of Chicago in ways that would have been impossible had the city not been reduced quite literally to rubble. Urban planning had long been in vogue in the United States, but Chicago’s unique relationship with the Lake and the River made for unprecedented challenges as the city was rebuilt at a truly incredible rate.
Internationally famous and respected architect Daniel Burnham died in 1912. Nine years later in 1921, Charles Moore published a two-volume biography of the prolific builder, in which he attributed to Burnham his most famous quotation. Whether or not Burnham ever actually said the precise words, the daring sentiment they embody is fitting for both the great architect and his city which he had helped raise from its own ashes: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will not themselves be realized.” We can’t help but wonder what Burnham would have thought about Breakwater Chicago, but we think he’d be proud that Chicagoans are still taking his advice some 100 years later.