2.12. WIGHT’S 1869 A.I.A. PAPER ON FIREPROOF CONSTRUCTION

Meanwhile back in New York City, Peter B. Wight had also presented a significant professional treatise in 1869, albeit its subject was less theoretical and more practical.  He had joined the A.I.A. in 1866 and following the completion of the National Academy of Design, had expanded his expertise into the area of fire-resistant construction in buildings.  Similar to Jenney, Wight was also well versed in art as well as in science.  By the age of thirty, Wight had gained a reputation as one of the country’s experts on building fire issues.  The paper on fireproof construction that he delivered at the 1869 A.I.A. convention ranks as one of the earliest American indictments of contemporary iron construction.  Wight began by attacking one of the more famous “fireproof” cast iron buildings, Bogardus’ five-story Harper and Brothers Publishing House of 1854, as being far from fireproof. 

James Bogardus, Harper and Brothers Publishing Building, New York, 1854. (Online)

While granting that the floors were incombustible, Wight pointed out that wood was used extensively as the interior finish material as well as that the contents of the building were highly flammable.  Wight used the Harper and Brothers building as being typical of the 1850’s and 1860’s in its approach to fireproofing, which treated the building as a series of horizontal fireproof layers, stacked one on top of another separated by an incombustible membrane:

“The division of buildings into horizontal compartments, rather than vertical ones, is so much more desirable, where land is expensive, that inventors have almost exhausted their ingenuity in devising thoroughly fire-proof floors.  It is obvious, however that the division of a building by vertical fire-proof partitions, is a matter so easy of accomplishment, that it is questionable whether the horizontal division, so beset with practical difficulties, so expensive, and withal so much less to be depended upon, even when the best systems of construction are used, is ever economical, even where ground is expensive.  I even question whether it is of any use to build iron floors, or floors with iron supports, for buildings to contain goods; brick piers and groined arches are alone reliable.  If you divide horizontally you must have stairways within and windows on the exterior, both of which welcome the ascending flames.  You may enclose your staircase in a fire-proof enclosure, and you may put the heaviest iron shutters on your windows, but you must have doors through which to gain access from your stairways, and you must open your shutters when you want light.  There is a contingency that these traps may be set when the enemy comes, and then all your expensive floors represent so much wasted capital.”

“As yet, I believe that no buildings in this vicinity, built purely for storage purposes, have been constructed entirely of fire-proof materials, except the St. John’s Depot of the Hudson River Railroad Company.  I am not aware that any attempt has been made in these buildings to stop a conflagration among the goods on storage either by horizontal or vertical compartments.  The floors, to be sure, are of iron and brick, non-combustible, but with hoistways; and it is not difficult to conjecture, even supposing that all horizontal openings and iron shutters were closed, what would be the result of a fire raging on one of those floors, hundreds of feet in expanse.”

In the corrections that Wight added to the paper before its publication, he listed two more buildings that were known for their fireproof qualities.  It was not merely coincidental that both buildings were fabricated by Daniel Badger and designed by George H. Johnson.  The first one was the I.M. Singer and Co. Building.  The second was the U.S. Warehousing Company’s “Iron Elevator,” in which Badger and Johnson went to great extremes to fireproof.  This is the earliest recorded evidence that New Yorker Wight was familiar with New Yorkers Badger’s iron frame-supported masonry curtain walls and Johnson’s early attempts at fireproof buildings.  It is inconceivable, therefore, that Wight and Johnson were not at least acquainted with one another in New York before 1869, let alone the 1871 Chicago fire.

George H. Johnson and Daniel Badger, Grain Storage Building, New York and Philadelphia, 1860 and 1862. Elevation showing the cast iron front with brick infill panels. In New York as late as 1865, this type of building was called a Grain Storage Building as opposed to the Chicago term, Grain Elevator. (Badger, Iron Architecture)

Great sums of time and money were spent on the development of fireproof floor systems and enclosures such as iron shutters for windows (note the conflict in their function: “you must open your shutters when you want light.”)  The shutters typically consisted of double sheets of iron separated by an insulating air space that were secured inside of the window frame to iron fames built into the brick work.

Daniel D. Badger, Rolling Iron Shutters, Patented in 1842. (Badger, Iron Architecture)

This resulted in a fireproof barrier independent of the window frame.  Wight warned that these contrivances were overrated for they depended on human action to maintain their protective qualities.  It was far better to realize the vertical nature of fire and react accordingly with economic prudence.  Wight thus foreshadowed a change to come in fireproofing strategy in the 1870’s from the Harpers’ Building’s horizontal layering to vertical compartmentalization by praising the construction of a number of warehouses in Brooklyn:

“These are about three hundred feet in length, and are divided into six compartments by fire-proof party walls; the width of each compartment is consequently about fifty feet, and the length about two hundred feet.  The floors are of wood, and it would have been useless to make them of iron and brick; for the goods taken in them are mainly sugars, and it would be folly to attempt to arrest a fire of such combustible material in its ascending course, by any practicable device.  But what is most interesting in these buildings is that each is fortified against its neighbor.  Recently the party walls were carried up about six feet above the roofs and were pierced with embrasures through which firemen can play from the roof of one building upon the flames in another, with perfect safety to themselves.  Here is an instance wherein capital would have been wasted on the expensive materials required for fire-proof floors.”

What Wight was recommending was a return to solid masonry exterior walls to protect the interiors of buildings from fire.  At the same time, he also presented a good argument in favor of the added expense of fireproof construction:  the extra cost of fireproof floors could be more than offset by a corresponding savings in insurance premiums, thereby allowing an owner to rent space at a lower rate than an equivalent building with wooden floors.   As we will see, it will be the insurance companies, and not Chicago’s municipal authorities that will be primarily responsible for requiring improvements to be made in building construction following the second, and not the first, Chicago fire of 1874.  And it will be Wight who will solve the technical problems identified by the insurance companies.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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