CHAPTER 3. HOW DID THE 1871 FIRE CHANGE CHICAGO?

(For a detailed account of Chicago’s architecture immediately before and after the fire, please see my Instagram site: “thearchprofessorinchicago” or click the icon at the right.) 

What were the effects that the 1871 fire had wrought on Chicago’s architecture and urban landscape before the 1873 Panic stopped the city’s reconstruction dead in its tracks? 

3.1. THE BEHAVIOR OF “FIREPROOF CONSTRUCTION” DURING THE 1871 FIRE

Meanwhile, the few improvements in construction that had been attempted in Chicago before the fire reviewed in Volume 1 had been too few and too late.  Even though the spread of the fire was mainly the result of the large amount of wood used within the city for buildings, sidewalks, and streets, the fire signaled the beginning of the end of exposed cast iron construction, as iron buildings that were reputed to be totally fireproof  were destroyed as easily as those that had made no such pretensions.

Iron beams in the ruins of the U.S. Post Office and Custom House. (Murphy, The Great Fire)

The problems of unprotected cast iron being exposed to the extreme temperatures that were generated in the conflagration were threefold.  First, cast iron suffered a loss of rigidity at a relatively low increase in temperature.  Second, since cast iron’s conduction of heat and coefficient of expansion is much higher than those of masonry, iron columns expanded under the intense heat at a greater rate than did the masonry.  This resulted in either the iron column’s buckling due to the increasing load in the column as it expanded or the disruption of the elevation of the floors in relation to the exterior walls with resulting damage to the brickwork.  Third, the heated cast iron elements that had not yet failed, upon contact with the firefighter’s cold water either cracked immediately, or bent out of vertical due to the contraction of the column face that was exposed first to the water, and then buckled.   No matter which mode of failure prevailed, the exposed cast iron column was one of the contributing factors for the immense destruction inflicted by the fire. (As well as the increased time and cost to remove the resulting debris as the melted iron simply recoagulated as its temperature dropped.)

Cast iron columns after the 1871 fire. (Kogan and Wendt, Chicago)

3.2. THE POST-FIRE POLITICAL REALITIES DETERMINE THE RESPONSE TO THE FIRE

Chicago Tribune Building, Before and After the Fire. (Online)

The Chicago Tribune, having seen its “fireproof” building destroyed by the fire of October 8, 1871, launched a crusade for improving the building code by putting the issue in front of the public on a regular basis.   The two major parties, in a rare display of non-partisanship, nominated a “Union-Fireproof” ticket with a “fireproof” platform, led by the Tribune’s owner and editor, Joseph Medill, in which the parties had agreed upon who was going to hold which office.  On November 7, 1871, Medill was easily elected mayor with a new alderman, Chicago’s first architect, John M. Van Osdel, riding into Council on Medill’s coattails.  The new council asked Van Osdel to draft a revised building code that would rectify the conditions that led to the fire.  It was an easy thing during an election campaign to promise such a prohibition against the backdrop of a smoldering city; however, it was quite something else to enact once people had time to figure out the actual cost of such a change.  Even the promise that Medill had run on, that he was “unalterably opposed from this time forward to the erection of a single wooden building within the limits of Chicago,” went nowhere.  The harsh reality of such an idea was that better construction meant that houses would be more expensive, pushing the cost of the American dream beyond the reach of many of Chicago’s working class.  By this time, Chicago’s various immigrant and labor organizations had wrested control of the city’s government away from the city’s wealthy businessmen.  A swell of protest against the ban of wood construction arose from the largely German population in the North and West Divisions that had convinced their alderman to defeat the proposal to prohibit wood construction.  Enacted on February 12, 1872, the revised code, therefore, amounted to nothing more than a whitewash, as the only improvements in construction over the existing 1865 code was the de facto elimination of cast iron fronts and stone veneers.

3.3.  THE POST-FIRE BUILDING CODE

Contrary to popular legend, no improvements in construction from a fireproofing standpoint were made following the 1871 fire, probably due to the fact that as of yet, no one really knew how to fireproof iron or wood, and the time needed to evolve a solution just wasn’t available.  The revised regulations as they pertain to the concerns of this study were:

1. While the fire limits of the city were greatly extended, in the belief that the large number of wooden buildings was the foremost cause of the spread of the fire, wood balloon frame construction was prohibited only in the immediate business district.  However, nothing was done to remove or remodel the large number of buildings that were constructed before the code’s enactment or that still stood to the south of the business district in the area unaffected by the fire.  (1872: Chapter 11, Section I).

2.  For the first time, a permit from the Board of Public Works was required to construct a building within the fire limits (1872: Chapter 11, Section I).

3.  Walls had to be of brick, stone, iron, or other non-combustible material.  Buildings over two stories in height were to have a minimum thickness of 16″ in their basement and first floor walls.  Walls above the first floor were to be a minimum of 12″ thick.  This was not a change from the 1865 code, except that no differentiation in minimum thickness was made for monolithic stone walls.  (1872: Chapter 11, Section 2).

4. The behavior of stone veneers and cast iron fronts in the fire was responded to in the new code:

“In all walls that are faced with their ashlar anchored to the backing…, the backing of brick shall not be less than twelve inches thick.  The backing in all walls, of whatever material it may be composed, shall be of such thickness as to make the walls, independent of facing, conform, as to thickness, with the requirements of this chapter.  The full thickness of iron fronts shall be filled in with brick work.”  (1872: Chapter 11, Section 2).

5. Interior load-bearing partitions could be reduced in thickness by 4″.  These walls could be substituted with brick piers, or iron or wood columns that supported appropriate girders.  As earlier discussed, solid timber columns once again became approved construction, yet, after all of the examples of the vulnerability of iron columns, no protection of an iron column was even mentioned (1872: Chapter 11, Section 2).

6. The maximum extension of bay or oriel windows into the public air rights over the sidewalks was increased to three feet above the second story.  This expanded the size of the vernacular Chicago bay window that was to become an integral part of the 1880s skyscraper.  (1872: Chapter 11, Section 2).

This was the extent of the new code’s jurisdiction over construction that was nothing more than a rewording of the existing code that had been developed in 1851 and slightly modified in 1865.  There were no new precautions set down to require fireproofing or improved construction beyond these minor improvements.  In fact, if anything, the new code was weaker for there was no mention of the former requirement for iron shutters for windows or fireproof hatches for openings between floors, both of which were integral parts of the old code.  Therefore, the effect of the 1871 Fire and the “Fireproof Ticket” on Chicago’s building code had been minimal, at best.  It banished the wooden balloon frame (Chicago’s own offspring, then only 38 years old) only from the immediate business district.  Stone veneers were made more expensive by the requirement of a full thickness of brick backing, not only in material costs but also because a thicker wall (15″ or 16″ vs. 12”) reduced the rentable floor area.  Therefore, if one desired a stone facade, either these costs were incurred or the wall had to be of monolithic stone, which was also much more expensive than the old stone-veneered, brick wall.  “All-brick buildings” were being advertised and sold, that in reality only had brick in the exterior walls.  Brick exteriors would soon come to dominate post-fire Chicago, much to the benefit of the city’s bricklayers’ union.  Fortunately, the bricklayers’ union promised not to engage in any actions during the rebuilding.  There was no need to do so, however, with wages being determined by a demand that far outpaced supply.

Cast Iron-fronted buildings along Lake Street, 1876. (Bluestone, Constructing Chicago)

Cast iron had performed no better than stone in the face of the extreme temperatures in the fire.  This did not mean, however, that the cast iron front was not used in the initial rebuilding following the fire.  As soon as possible before any new building ordinances could be approved, new cast iron fronts in the latest style were reordered from New York by owners who still viewed them to still be in fashion.  Van Osdel was asked by the owners of the Lake Street facades to quickly rebuild their stores so as not to lose more of the area’s declining reputation to Palmer’s State Street.  Indeed, 1872 saw the erection of twenty cast iron fronts in Chicago for which building permits had been obtained prior to the new code.

While not banning cast iron fronts outright from the city, the new February 1872 code’s requirement of a backing of 12″ of brick effectively increased the cost of the iron front beyond being profitable and, therefore, was the final step in the demise of Chicago’s cast iron fronts.  While cast iron fronts continued to be built in New York through the 1880s, it was not coincidental that Chicago’s first decorative stamped sheet galvanized iron front was erected on the Lord, Smith, and Co. Building by Cochrane & Miller at 115 N. Wabash in 1872.  The galvanized sheet iron panels were attached to two-feet thick brick walls.  Those in Chicago who still desired the same effect of the cast iron façade, therefore, could turn to manufacturers of stamped sheet metals panels that had been producing sheet iron coverings for wooden cornices since they had been required by the 1851 code.  The visual effect of a cast iron front could easily be achieved at a fraction of the cost by extending the cornice’s iron covering over the entire facade.

Cochrane and Miller, Lord, Smith and Co. Building, Chicago, 1872. The first Chicago building to employ a galvanized sheet iron facade. (The Land Owner, August 1873)

3.4. POST-FIRE SUMMARY

There were no great changes made in the city’s building code following the fire or even in the construction practices by the local craftsmen during the reconstruction.  In fact, I have shown that wood continued to be used as a structural material after the fire.  Only the wood balloon frame had been banned, but this prohibition extended only throughout the business district; there was no ban on using the balloon frame in any of the adjacent residential neighborhoods.  The fire had also proven that stone, especially that used as a veneer, was quite useless as a fireproof material and was replaced by all brick exteriors in the majority of the post-fire buildings. The only tangible result of the fire upon construction practices in post-fire Chicago was the increase in the thickness of party walls between the buildings, an attempt to prevent the spread of a fire between adjacent buildings.  Even this was accomplished in agreement solely between the owners and their architects beyond the thickness that was required by the new “stricter” code.  Therefore, the progress in the environmental quality of building interiors that had been achieved with the cast iron front prior to the fire, was sacrificed for the protection offered by the masonry wall, the defensive ramparts relied upon throughout the Ages.  It was a setback to the development of exterior iron skeletal construction and a return to the age-old architectural challenge of putting holes in masonry walls. 

3.5.  THE FIRE DID NOT RESULT IN CHANGES TO CHICAGO’S ARCHITECTURE

Meanwhile, in terms of the city’s architecture, the fire had, indeed, “wiped the slate” of the business district clean of all buildings.  However, many of the destroyed buildings were simply reconstructed as they had existed prior to the fire (the best and largest example being W.W. Boyington’s La Salle Street Station, while the Illinois Central didn’t even bother to repair its damaged terminal).  The replacements that did differ from their originals typically had more ornament, and not less, contradicting what some authors have claimed to have been the result of the fire.

W.W. Boyington, (Top) Pre-Fire Michigan Southern and Northern Indiana Station (Kogan and Wendt, Chicago); (Bottom) Post-Fire Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Station, 1872. Note the subtle differences from the pre-fire station: the shed no longer has dormers for daylight, and the company’s name has been updated from the “Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana” to the Vanderbilt “Lake Shore & Michigan Southern.” (Chicago Historical Society)

One of the first writers to document the history of Chicago’s architecture, in 1941 architect Theodore Tallmage clearly stated:

“the argument that the Chicago Fire revolutionized the art or even the science of building in Chicago or in other local cities could hardly be proved.  One might have hoped that in the white heat of such a blast the slag of our artistic impurities would be skimmed off, or that the phoenix, arising from the embers, would look more like an eagle and less like a turkey buzzard; but that was not the case.  A greater effort was made to fireproof buildings… but the Fire was no ending of an epoch nor a turning-point in the road.”

In summary, the majority of Chicago’s post-fire buildings looked and were built much like the buildings that were destroyed by the 1871 fire.  There were two notable exceptions, however. First, the fire had momentarily cast doubts upon the safety of the city’s tall building in regards to the city’s firefighters’ ability to extinguish a fire in the upper floors of such buildings, thereby resulting in a voluntary ban of the Second Empire’s mansard roof in some buildings (as the mansard was the uppermost floor in these) that resulted in the return of the old favorite Italian palazzo‘s flat, rectangular mass. 

John M. Van Osdel, (Left) Pre-Fire (The Land Owner, October 1871); and (Right) Post-Fire Kendall Building, Chicago, 1872. (The Land Owner, February 1872)

And second, the city’s public buildings, the City Hall/Courthouse and the U.S. Custom House and Post Office had disappeared, not to reappear for almost a decade, and when they did, these buildings were designed at a much larger scale than that of their predecessors, similar to that of the new grand hotels that experienced together had changed the scale of the business district from a collection of five-story, small storefront buildings, to block-long behemoths. 

Loring & Jenney, Pre-Fire City Hall-County Courthouse, 1868. (Online)
James J. Egan, Post-Fire City Hall and Cook County Courthouse, 1875-84. (Online)
Ammi B. Young, Pre-Fire U.S. Post Office and Custom House, Chicago, 1855. (Jevni & Almini)
William A. Potter, Post-Fire U.S. Post Office and Custom House, 1872-80. (Gilbert, Chicago and Its Makers)

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

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