3.19. SHOWDOWN! THE BOSTON SOCIETY OF ARCHITECTS FIRE TESTS THE TWO SYSTEMS

There can be little doubt that it was Atkinson’s pressure that encouraged the Boston Society of Architects to organize an exhibition of building materials, including the latest fireproofing techniques, at the 1881 Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association Fair.  This set the stage for the final confrontation between Atkinson’s assertion that “there was no such thing as a fireproof building” and Wight’s work over the past seven years in refining just such a system. The American Architect in September reported:

“Perhaps of all the exhibits the one most to the purpose is that of the Wight Fire-Proofing Company, which is at once complete as showing the various applications of the process, instructive in its interesting features, and comprehensive and workman-like in the manner in which the exhibit is prepared.  As one examines it one feels how other exhibitors have failed to comprehend the possibilities of the occasion and keenly regrets their inaptitude.  The present absence of other exhibits of fire-proof material makes this display the more conspicuous.  One cannot but believe that here is one of the nearest approaches to strictly fire-proof building that has been achieved.  The tests which are to be made will show what ground there is for the belief that fire-proofing is possible and that the utmost that can be attained is not, as is believed by the Boston Manufacturers’ Mutual Insurance Company, a “slow-burning” construction.”

The test referred to in the above quote was sponsored by the Boston Society of Architects, specifically to ascertain whether Atkinson’s or Wight’s ideas about fireproofed buildings were the appropriate direction for future construction.  On November 15, 1881, (ten years after the first Chicago fire), a small test building consisting of various fire-proofing materials, including Wight’s porous terra cotta columns and tiles for wood floors and Loring’s tiles for wood beams, was filled with fuel and burned for an hour and twenty minutes.  Then the fire was extinguished with high-pressure hoses, simulating actual conditions as carefully as possible.  After cooling, the building was inspected by a panel of judges who found no substantial damage to any of the wood or iron that was protected by porous terra cotta and reported:

“Buildings may be protected and partially fire-proofed, using posts, columns and girders of wood or iron, thoroughly encased in a fire-proof material,…we regard as essential qualities in a perfect material for general use in fire-proof building construction the power to successfully resist disintegration by the action of fire, water and frost.  Loring’s Porous Terra-Cotta, as tested, has satisfied us that this material can be made to possess all these qualities… The terra-cotta submitted to these tests gave evidence in a remarkable degree of its ability to protect iron beams and columns from the action of fire and water, without fracture or disintegration, as well as to insure the complete security of wood from the action of the flames, so that not the least charring was observed where it was protected by Loring’s Porous Terra-Cotta.”

Poignantly, only three of the four appointed judges signed the final report.  The fourth, Edward Atkinson, was not present at either the test or the later inspections.  Therefore, he declined to sign the report that, in essence, recommended the new material, countering everything he had previously argued for the past two and a half years.  This fact was not ignored by Loring, who must have savored having the last word:

“Mr. Atkinson’s absence and his inability to devote the time taken by his associates to investigate the results and test the material, was unfortunate, and the just sentiment which made it proper to draw attention to the fact that he declined to sign the report, will, perhaps, justify this attempt to call attention to the means, the time, and care taken by the other judges to fulfill their duty.  The report, as the result of intelligent investigation by men whose experience and observation during many years of service, as the head of the Fire and Building Departments of Boston, entitles them and their report to attention.  Very truly yours,  S.E. LORING.”

Chicago’s efforts in developing a system of terra cotta fireproofing, mainly through the tireless efforts of Peter B. Wight and Sanford Loring, had succeeded in saving New York’s iron frame for the future erection of tall buildings.  We might say that the date of the test, November 15,1881, marks the start of the consensus on the approved use of the iron skeleton frame in the United States, some seven years after the insurance companies had forced the issue following the second great Chicago fire of July 14, 1874.

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

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