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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Make No Small Plans…

It was like a snowstorm only the flakes were red instead of white.

-- Fire Narrative of Bessie Bradwell Helmer

Dateline: October 8, 1871

Chicago, Illinois was a tinderbox -- with 57 miles of wood-paved streets, 561 miles of wooden sidewalks, and tens of thousands of newly constructed wooden buildings. Though the exact particulars of its origins are unknown, given the dry summer and the careless way the city had been built and managed, the kicking over of a lantern by a cow is as probable cause of a fire as anything. What is known is that on Sunday evening, October 8, 1871, shortly after 9 o'clock, a fire broke out in the barn behind the home of Patrick and Catherine O'Leary on DeKoven Street on Chicago's West Side.

The fire, driven by a strong wind out of the southwest, headed straight for the center of the city: The “Great Chicago Fire” was raging on – and there was little anyone could do but bear witness to this “calamity beyond comprehension.”

The fire burned for two days, until rain finally fell on the morning of October 10. By then, one third of Chicago (around 18,000 buildings) was a smoldering ruin. About 300 people died in the fire, and more than 100,000 were left homeless (ironically, the O'Leary home, built in front of the barn, survived the fire. Today it is the site of the Chicago Fire Academy).

From the ashes…

After the "Great Conflagration" of 1871, architects were recruited into the gigantic effort to rebuild the city. It didn't take long for Chicagoans to rebuild. Within weeks, construction had begun on 212 new buildings--this time made with stone and brick.

One of these men was little-known Daniel H. Burnham.

A couple of years later, Burnham, an enthusiastic promoter of great construction enterprises, started his own firm with John Wellborn Root, the architect of the first American skyscrapers. Root was reportedly a sharp mechanical mind with no interest in people skills. Each personality seemed to complete the other, Burnham acting as the dreamer and political conduit, Root, the astute draftsman and physics whiz.

After Root's premature death from pneumonia in 1891, Burnham planned the enormous World's Columbian Exposition on Chicago's south lakefront. The largest world's fair to that date.

In 1909, the Commercial Club sponsored the Plan of Chicago, again headed by Burnham. He envisioned a new Chicago as a "Paris on the Prairie" with French inspired public works constructions, fountains and boulevards radiating from a central, domed municipal palace.

In addition to great buildings and one of the most spectacular cities in the world, Daniel Burnham left us with a mission statement that all Knights should strive to live up to:

Make no small plans. They have no magic to stir humanity’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.

Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical plan once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.

Remember that our sons and daughters are going to do things that will stagger us.

Let your watchword be order and your beacon, beauty.

Think Big.

So, when a “disaster” seems to be trying to burn down your dreams, remember The Great Conflagration and the “can do” spirit and hard work that planned and rebuilt Chicago. And remember Daniel Burnham, who whispers in our own spirit, “Make no small plans… Stir humanity’s blood…Think big!”

Sir Bowie of Greenbriar


  1. NOte from Irony Central ...Again

    You talk about fire....and give me the name of a guy called Burnham.....

    now call me cynical, but he would be appearing high on the Police list of folks who might have started this... LOL...

    ahhhhh ( wipes tears from eyes)
    if wit were money i'd be lending $$$ to the Government today LOL

    I'll read the thrust of your blog later Sir B...i'm off to quell the urge to fly over and burn your house down and see your reaction when i tell you that its all part of my long term plans and dreams to regnerate the neighbourhood you are living in LOL...

    D of O ( wanna buy a Bank?? )

  2. ah ha...i have just seen a flaw in my witty reposte...

    In England we say the name Burnham
    as Burn'em where as in the new world i suspect you say Burn Ham.

    in which case my ironic note would be lost on you guys....

    once again, Seperated by a common language.

    D of O

  3. This is a good read, Sir Bowie.

    The problem with making BIG plans, nowadays, is that one has to contend with the systemic cynicism of so many. If you live in a city that has held, or aspires to hold, the Olympics you'll know what I mean: the assorted environmentalists, defeatists and do-gooders who come out of the woodwork and seem to have but one word "NO!"

    On the other hand there are those who believe that any really big plans will require government involvement. That, of course, may be true in some instances, but generally the less government the better.

    -=Sir Richard

  4. I have always known the story of the Chicago Fire, but never the story of the rebuilding. Thanks for the history lesson and the inspiration of Daniel Burnham. Now is indeed a time to THINK BIG! I'm glad I have my "Small Big Idea Book" at the ready.