On October 8, 1871 Chicago’s dry weather, high winds and abundance of wooden buildings were no match for a small barn fire, rumoured to be sparked by a cow knocking over an oil lamp.
That small fire raged through the city, burning four square miles of the downtown core, $200 million in damage and 300 lives lost. What seemed an insurmountable tragedy triggered an entrepreneurial, innovation and economic boom so large that the city’s present day success is still attributed to the Great Fire of 1871.
It was that spirit which inspired the name of 1871: Chicago’s preeminent innovation hub, incubator and co-working space. The non-profit hub is home to more than 500 early-stage digital startups accounting for an estimated 3000 employees. Founded in 2012 by Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center (CEC), 1871 has quickly become recognized as the renowned hub for the city’s entrepreneurial community, enjoying frequent visits from the country’s leaders in politics, technology and innovation.
The hub was designed by Gensler, occupying 130,000 square feet of the historic Merchandise Mart. TheMART is the world’s largest commercial building, rising 25 stories and spanning two city blocks perched along the North banks of the Chicago River between North Orleans and North Wells Street
The company launched with a corner of the ninth floor and in under four years have added two additional floors for new and growing tenants. As a startup hub, the space offers tiered memberships. Potential members can apply and are curated to ensure they are valuable contribution to the 1871 ecosystem. Notable members include accelerators Techstars Chicago and Good Food Business; investing fund Impact Engine; several industry-specific incubators in real estate, education technology, food and financial technology and several emerging tech talent schools.
The main space is named The Commons, designed as a bustling and energetic cafe-style space where base-level members enjoy 24 hour access to co-working spaces, meeting rooms, lockers, sound-proof phone booths and basic office services. More established companies enjoy additional levels of membership including private permanent spaces where long hallways of fogged glass hide industry secrets from our cameras.
1871 is careful to distinguish itself from just a hub or an incubator, instead proclaiming themselves as an innovation ecosystem. This is backed up by the varied list of tenants, activities and uses of the space. Each year 1871 hosts over one-thousand events out of their 250 seat auditorium. The month’s events are tracked on a giant blackboard in The Commons and all members are welcome to join. Additionally, startup tech schools have had a place in the space since its inception, providing a never-ending flow of fresh talent intermingling with hundreds of startups at differently phases, all looking to hire young talent.
An ever-changing number of people use the 1871 space regularly at all hours of the day and night. Although the wall of junk food is still present in The Commons, there is also a Freshii built directly into 1871’s lobby, offering a welcome healthy alternative to the wall of carbs & sugar.
Every available wall of the 1871 hallways are adorned with massive murals, unique artwork and the elaborate personal art collection of 1871’s CEO Howard Tullman.
A dramatic steel staircase is the internal entryway from The Commons to latest 25 000 square foot expansion. Four screens along the wall invite passers-by to stop and experience each unique installation: Soundscapes emit from overhead domes paired with images on the screen, immersing the viewer in a different reality. A surprisingly quiet collaboration space overlooks the stairwell where teams breakout to enjoy the natural night.
Walking through the varied halls of this space, glancing through open doors and passing by break-out meetings, there is a distinct sense of intensity. Though warm and welcoming, people walk with intention. There is an obvious sense that 1871’s tenants are incredibly motivated, embodying the feeling of Downtown Chicago itself. This is a unique collection of people, each building something special, something big and 1871 efficiently accommodates this unique group in ways that foster growth in every conceivable way.
At the end of the day, as members exit theMart’s West doorway, they are met with one of the most spectacular urban views in the country. A subtle reward for a days work and an apt reminder of why they are working so hard.
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