Otis Wheelock, Honoré Block, Chicago, 1873. Northwest corner of Dearborn and Madison. (Gilbert, Chicago)

Wight and Loring continued through 1877, 1878 and into 1879 using their reputations and connections to promote their products.  At the 1877 A.I.A. National Convention both Wight and Loring gave major presentations.  Wight delivered a paper, “The Fire Question,” in which he reviewed all of the latest methods of fireproofing.  Prominent in the presentation was the Mitchell Building, which was then under construction in Milwaukee.  The following day, Loring read a paper he had written that documented the progress made in terra cotta manufacture during the past four years.

By 1878 Wight had even achieved a modicum of European respect for his efforts and was invited to exhibit at the conference of Architects on Iron Construction at London’s Royal Academy in June.  A few months later at the 1878 A.I.A. National Convention in New York, Loring, although he did not make a formal presentation, was very visible in his defense of terra cotta against attacks made on it by those who favored stone or carved brick, then very much still in vogue. The intense competition among the fledgling fireproofing companies was also apparent at the Convention in Leonard Beckwith’s open invitation to the convention for a tour through his Fire-Proof Building Company of New York’s facilities.


The heating season of the winter of 1878-79 saw a marked increase in urban fires.  The Honoré Block at the northwest corner of Dearborn and Madison was destroyed by fire in January 1879.  This disaster was quickly followed by two major fires in New York which caused over five million dollars’ worth of damage.  Curiously, even though the insurance companies have been shown to have been a leading force in what few improvements in construction had been made during the previous five years, they were held responsible in 1879 by the American Architect for the continuing problem of the lack of fireproof construction in buildings:

“At present the best hope of improvement next to the influence of architects, seems to be in the influence of underwriters. The burden of losses has been transferred to them, and it is this more than anything else, we suspect, which hinders safe building.  If owners bore all the risks of fire, we may be sure that they would put more money into their buildings for the sake of avoiding it.  When they can be secured against this risk for a moderate premium, the sense of danger which would be their chief stimulus to improvement being removed, they put the money where it will bring more profit. [my emphasis] They will spend lavishly for show, because show is one of the profitable elements in their business; but not for security because security has become the business of the insurance companies.  It is evident that the prevalence of insurance has not been an unmixed benefit…  The insurance companies themselves are rather reckless.  Competition is sharp among them, and they take unsafe risks.  Every great fire brings down some of them; but the profits of their lucky years are tempting and they swarm like bees.”

Evidently, even eight years after the great Chicago fire, the Honoré Block fire reaffirmed the fact that not much had been accomplished in remedying the original problems in Chicago’s construction:

“In the light of these fires we can see a glimmer of consolation for the probable loss of our forests which we have been lamenting in our last paragraph,–in the hope that at least the diminishing supply of lumber may at the end force us to build with more massive and less combustible material.  The inadequacy of unprotected iron, our favorite substitute, to bear the fire, was freshly illustrated in the Chicago building, where the wooden floors of the store were carried on iron columns and girders.  These, we are told, giving way under the heat, brought down the floors of the store which first burned and, pulling out the party-wall, let the fire through into the next… the more economical and more satisfactory way is already approved by experience,–to build structures that will not burn.  To this, however, the people of Chicago do not seem disposed to turn their minds.” [Remember, this is 1879 not 1872!]

Apparently, this held true for people outside of Chicago in 1879 as well.  With insurance companies willing to gamble with the attitude that “it was their business to pay for fires, and not to prevent them,” it was more profitable to build as cheaply as possible and protect the investment by transferring the potential loss to an underwriter.  At the same time, the “insurance” business was so lucrative and competitive, that no distinction with respect to construction techniques was made in establishing rates.  In fact, some owners were forced to build cheaply thanks to the unwillingness of some insurance companies to lower the rate for a planned building that was to employ fireproof construction.

The only exception to this state of affairs was a consortium of seventeen Eastern mutual fire insurance companies that had been formed by mill owners to insure their “uninsurable” factories.  Early in 1879, the largest of these companies, the Boston Manufacturers’ Mutual Fire Insurance Company, located in Brookline, Massachusetts, issued a report on the then deplorable condition of American construction techniques and contrasted it with its own success, achieved by requiring heavy timber mill construction.  The implied criticism directed towards American architects quickly elicited a response by the American Architect in April 1879:

“It would be difficult to find surroundings more deadening to the sensibilities, more uncongenial to art, than are to be found in any New England factory town…and its monotony of unsightly buildings; for somehow or other picturesqueness, or even grace, and utility are thought to be quite incompatible when it is a question of building a cotton or a woollen mill.  To the architect more than to any one else such a building is an eyesore; to him it represents the minimum of result and almost the maximum of wasted opportunity…He can recall scores of engineering structures which are at once pleasing to the eye and useful, and he wonders how it happens that all owners of mills are affected by the same unappreciativeness of architectural effect.  If he inquires diligently, he will find that the responsibility rests not wholly with the owners, but in a great measure with the underwriters who insure them against fire loss.  They have formulated the conditions which a mill must fulfill before they will accept a risk on it, and having found them to be such as master-builders and engineers can fulfill to their satisfaction, they have discouraged intentionally or unintentionally, the employment of architects… In the East, at least, the responsibility for much of this bald work rests with a combination of seventeen mutual fire insurance companies, which make a specialty of insuring mills.  Without reflecting on the propriety and wisdom of the regulations which these companies have established, we can express the wish that they may find it possible hereafter to make a more liberal view of the architectural needs of mill buildings.”

While decrying the lack of any aesthetic sensitivity, the article grudgingly had to acknowledge the success these regulations had achieved in severely reducing the fire losses in what was up to then the most dangerous of all building types.  This vicious editorial that seemed to have come from out of nowhere, for the aesthetics of factories had never been an issue before, can be credited as the spark that finally ignited the fire issue into the national debate that eventually led to its resolution.  Underwriter and architect would blame each other while supporters of slow-burning timber construction would once more challenge the integrity of “fireproofed” or incombustible building systems that employed iron.  Peter Wight had finally run into a formidable adversary in his crusade to save iron construction from oblivion.

The one person who deserves the credit for singlehandedly initiating and focusing this debate (that was to reform both the insurance and the architecture professions) was Edward Atkinson, who, in 1878, had only recently become president and treasurer of the Boston Manufacturers’ Mutual Insurance Company.  He quickly replied to the American Architect’s editorial, articulating not only the reasons behind much of the underwriters’ distrust of architects, but also a philosophy of architecture along rational lines (one of his Brookline neighbors and friend was H.H. Richardson) that was obviously in great contrast to that which was responsible for the bulk of the buildings being constructed at the time:

“These officers of insurance companies have no hostility to true architects whatever, but as underwriters they are compelled to take the position of hostility to the work of very many of the professional architects, for the following reasons…they have constructed buildings that were either unsafe to insure, not strong enough for the work to be done in them, or unfit in some important way… Furthermore the mutual underwriter distrusts the work of many of the professional architects because in most of the city buildings lately constructed under their control or supervision the method of construction is such as to assure the maximum of risk from the minimum of fire… In very many of them also the use of the interior has been subordinated to the architectural effect of the exterior; hence they are not only unsafe but in some measure unfit for their purpose… which is the true architect, he who subordinates architectural effect to the conditions of safety and fitness for intended use, or he who sacrifices either or both of the latter to the former?

Seldom has the profession of architecture been subjected to such wholesale condemnation, yet there must have been some truth in it for the American Architect to print it.  Response was quick and to the point.  A Boston architect put the blame back on the availability of cheap insurance for owners who would reason:

“If I build it fireproof I shall need no insurance.  With the ordinary construction the premium will be about one percent for five years, or $200 per year.  To make it fire-proof will cost say $20,000 more.  Interest on $20,000 at six per cent is $1200.  I was then about to sacrifice a thousand dollars a year to a mere sentiment, or in order to gratify the whims of this architect.”

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

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