They Saw It as Destiny

Stock Exchange, Chicago, 1903

Stock Exchange, Chicago, 1903

Louis H. Sullivan, the father of the modern skyscraper, said this about Chicago in 1875, as it emerged from the Great Fire of 1871 and the Economic Panic of 1873:

As everybody said: “Chicago has risen phoenix-like from its ashes.” But many ashes remained, and the sense of ruin was still blended with ambition of recovery. Louis thought it all magnificent and wild: A crude extravaganza: An intoxicating rawness: A sense of big things to be done. For “Big” was the word. “Biggest” was preferred, and “the biggest in the world” was the braggart phrase on every tongue. Chicago had had the biggest conflagration “in the world.” It was the biggest grain and lumber market “in the world.” It slaughtered more hogs than any other city “in the world.” It was the greatest railroad center, the greatest this, and the greatest that. It shouted itself hoarse in réclame. The shouters could not well be classed in the proverbial liars of Ecclesiastes, because what they said was true; and had they said, in the din, we are the crudest, rawest, most savagely ambitious dreamers and would-be doers in the world, that also might be true. For with much gloating of self-flattering they bragged: “We are the most heavily mortgaged city in the world.” Louis rather liked all this, for his eye was ever on the boundless prairie and the mighty lake. All this frothing at the mouth amused him at first, but soon he saw the primal power assuming self-expression amid nature’s impelling urge. These men had vision. What they saw was real, they saw it as destiny… When Louis came to understand the vast area of disaster, he saw clearly and with applause that this new half-built city was a hasty improvisation made in dire need by men who did not falter.

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