Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Great Chicago Fire
 by: chicago designslinger

 [Chicago Fire Department Training Academy (1960) Loebl Schlossman & Bennett, architects; Pillar of Fire (1961) Egon Weiner, artist; 558 W. De Koven Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

There's a children's song, with a repetitive chorus, which goes something like this:

Five nights ago, when the old folks were in bed,
Old Maid Leary left a lantern in her shed,
And when her cow kicked over
She winked her eye and said,
"There'll be a hot time,
in the old town,
                            FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!

Four nights ago....

And so it repeats, over and over, until there is only one night left. And poor Catherine O'Leary. She will be forever linked to a cow, a kerosene lamp, a children's ditty, and one of the greatest urban conflagrations in human history.

[John Patrick O'Leary House (1901) Zachary Taylor Davis, architect; 726 W. Garfield Boulevard, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

The fire left a four mile long by one mile wide swath of destruction in its wake. The entire business district laid in ruins, as did nearly the entire north side residential district. Approximately $230 million worth of property went up in flames, and around 100,000 people - in a city of 330,000 - were left homeless. The county coroner said the fire killed in the neighborhood of 330 people, but today, after much research, the estimate is much higher. The fire started in a building at the back of the O'Leary's De Koven Street property on the night of October 8th. Shockingly, the house at the front of the lot survived the fire intact without so much as a scorch on its wood siding, and is where, in 1960, the Chicago Fire Department built their training academy. A group of newspaper reporters made-up the entire story of Mrs. O'Leary and her cow. The Irish were an easy target, along with African Americans, who were seen as the primary source of all the city's ills. By the time the myth-making newsmen fessed-up to their big lie decades later, the damage was done. And the unfortunate scapegoat was hounded by the press each and every year on the anniversary of the fire, right up until her death in 1895. Her son James Patrick O'Leary, went on to become one of the city's more notorious and financially successful citizens, building a large mansion for he and his family not far from his mother's South Halsted Street address. The slowly decaying brownstone facade of the Garfield Boulevard manse still bears his JOL insignia - inscribed on the house's front porch.

   [Chicago Relief & Aid Society Cottage (1871) 348 W. Menomonee Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Rebuilding began immediately. The Chicago Relief & Aid Society raised an astonishing $5 million within weeks after the fire had finally burned itself out, and undertook a campaign to build temporary housing for the city's homeless working class residents. Little rectangular relief cottages began sprouting-up in clusters just outside the burnt district. They were small enough and light weight enough to be mass produced in a nearby lumber yard, put on flat bed wagon for delivery, and plunked down on a piece of vacant and unburnt land. They were tiny, but provided shelter from the approaching winter weather. A rare survivor now faces an alley in the Old Town neighborhood, expanded just a bit by a small lean-to enclosed porch, but the proportions of the original 141-year-old "temporary" house are still evident.

   [Church of Our Saviour (1888) Clinton J. Warren, architect; 530 W. Fullerton Parkway, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

The fire finally burned itself out around four o'clock in the morning on October 10th, 1871 when a light rain began to fall. The wall of flames, sometimes reaching 10 stories in height and a length of 2 city blocks, had also pretty much run out of fuel by the time it reached Fullerton Parkway, near what is now the alley behind architect Clinton J. Warren's Church of Our Saviour. Fullerton was the official northern boundary line of the relatively young city and remote. There weren't very many structures standing around in this part of town to help feed the fire - wood or otherwise. The flames actually died-out in the Town of Lake View, which sat on the north side of the street, so the Great Chicago Fire didn't technically end within the city's corporate limits.

  [Washington Block (1873) Frederick & Edward Baumann, architects; 40 N. Wells Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

The major focus of rebuilding centered on the destroyed business district, without which the city would never recover. No one wasted any time in the reconstruction effort. An article in the Chicago Tribune published on October 14, 1871, just days after the disaster, led with the dramatic headline, "The Phantom City - Chicago Rising Again!" reporting that, "Hempstead & Armour will erect their three stores on River Street, just as soon as the bricks cool." Much has been made in the architectural annuls of history about the groundbreaking buildings constructed in downtown Chicago as a result of the fire. And although the city became world famous for its innovative and much copied "Chicago construction" style, Frederick Baumann's Washington Block was much more typical of post-fire building construction than say Adler & Sullivan's Auditorium Building, Burnham & Root's Reliance Building, or Holabird & Roche's Marquette.  And although not nearly as well known as Burnham, Root, Holabird, Roche, Adler, or Sullivan, Baumann was an early innovator. The Washington Block sat on a foundation that the engineering architect had devised which spread the load of the building's weight out and over Chicago's swampy based soil. It was a spark that helped start Chicago's rise to skyscraper prominence, and eventually draw the world's attention to the architecturally inspirational city. The Block is a rare surviving example of what downtown Chicago would have looked like in the years right after the fire, before buildings like these were considered outdated in just a decade, and were torn down to make room for the Burnhams, Roots, Adlers, Sullivans, Holabirds and Roches of the world.

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