8.25. 13 YEARS LATER: THE END OF USING WOOD FLOOR STRUCTURES – THE GRANNIS BLOCK FIRE

Burnham & Root, Grannis Block, Chicago, 1880. (Chicagology.com)

The work on extending Dearborn Street, first promised in January 1882, was postponed to the Fall of 1884, then to the Spring of 1885.  Actually, it wasn’t until construction on the new C. & W. I. terminal was completed in September 1885, four months after the opening of the new Board of Trade and, more importantly, five and a half years after the first train had arrived in Chicago on the C. & W. I. tracks, that the extension of Dearborn from Jackson to Polk was completed.  It was obvious that La Salle Street had won the battle, and the Brookses shelved their grand plans for Dearborn during the next five years.  Instead, within two weeks of Aldis’ initial confession to Brooks of the defeat of the Monadnock, the Brookses first shored up their existing investment along the built-up portion of Dearborn by purchasing the Grannis Block for $175,000 (they already owned the land under it).  A month later in December 1884 they purchased the southeast corner of Clark and Van Buren, diagonally opposite the new Open Board of Trade and only two blocks east of the La Salle Street Station. Within a month they had obtained a building permit for the site for a 103′ x 103′, 12-story, 160′ high office building designed by Burnham & Root.  As the old adage goes, “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

Peter B. Wight, Porous Terra-Cotta Tile System for Fireproofing Wood Floors. (Inland Architect, February 1885)

Then the roof literally fell in, for on February 19, 1885, only three months after Shepherd Brooks had purchased the Grannis Block as a safe investment, it was destroyed by fire.  Although never confirmed, the consensus of the fire’s origin was friction caused by the elevator’s counterweights on their wooden guiderails.  The fire had quickly spread through the open elevator shaft and into the building’s wood floor structure, disproving the effectiveness of Wight’s porous terra cotta tile system’s ability to protect wood floor structures.  Apparently both Burnham and Root, whose office was located on the top floor, were the first to discover the fire and were able to escape with their lives, although the firm’s records and drawings were completely destroyed (that proved to be a great loss for architectural historians). 

“At times, when the wind blew aside the dense clouds of smoke and steam, and the flames showed through the great icicles that hung from every window and capital and ledge, the scene was beautiful and grand.  On either side of the street the buildings were enveloped in a white shroud, from which the flames reflected as from a mirror.  The men themselves look [sic] like moving icicles, so completely were they covered with ice.”

Ice-Encrusted Ruin of the Grannis Block, Feb. 20, 1885. (Chicagology.com)

Because of the severity of the winter, the ice-encrusted ruin of a supposedly fireproof building stood for weeks as a sober reminder that even though over thirteen years had passed since the great conflagration of October 8, 1871, Chicago had not yet learned not to build with wood:

“The burning of the Grannis Block has occasioned more comment than any similar event in years.  The building, though of timber construction, was so well built as to be supposed to be fireproof, and the sentiment in favor of fireproofing has set so strong that it is doubtful if in the future any office building will be constructed otherwise.  This should be carefully watched by the citizens’ committee, and if not a sufficient warning to owners who wish to build cheaply at the expense of the lives of their tenants, they should see that a law compelling the fireproofing of buildings of certain classes should be passed.  This law should apply not only to office buildings but all factories and apartment houses.  Another point in the construction of buildings that must be abandoned – and it is found in the designs of all architects – is the placing of wooden stairs around open elevator shafts.  In the Grannis Block fire, the architect who planned the building had a forcible example of the “disadvantage” of this system as he escaped down the burning stairway.  The stairs should be of iron and fireproofed, and the elevator shaft should be of fireproof material and open at the top, not among a mass of wooden joists and rafters, but like a chimney above the roof, and all doors should be iron and close automatically.”

Although wood floor joists would no longer be used in large commercial buildings in Chicago after the Grannis fire, heavy timber framing would still not disappear for a number of years to come.  While the city still refused to enact stricter building ordinances, Burnham and Root had learned this lesson the hard way: the offices of Burnham & Root were temporarily relocated next door to the Portland Block, until more permanent space could be rented in the Montauk Block, the first office building constructed with fireproof hollow tile floor arches.  Conservative Shepherd Brooks had learned a lesson too.  Instead of rebuilding the Grannis Block, he leased the site to Wilson Nixon, who rebuilt the building generally along the same lines of the Grannis Block, drawn up by Burnham & Root in their new, safer office.   

Root took the opportunity to update the design of the facade for the new client, the National Bank of Illinois. The outdated mansard roof and tower were removed and replaced with an extra floor that gave the building its up-to-date palazzo form. He combined the top two floors into a third horizontal layer above the base in which he detailed triple windows between the structural piers, imparting a 1:2:3 progression of windows in the layered arcades as they marched up the elevation.  Root reinforced the center bay that originally had supported the tower, by replacing the triple-arched motif of the outer bays of the top floor with one large, semicircular arch.  Then he topped the composition with a flat cornice that not only updated the building’s design, but also visually tied it better to the recent two-story addition in the Portland Block next door (and leads one to wonder if Aldis had also earlier assigned the design of the Portland’s addition to Burnham & Root).

Burnham & Root, Post-1885 fire Grannis Block. The Portland Block with its two-story addition, is at the far left. This image shows the original base was maintained while only two additional floors were added to the Grannis, begging the question of when was the base updated and the third new floor per the above photograph added? (Andreas, History-vol.3)

FURTHER READING:

Hoffmann, Donald. The Architecture of John Wellborn Root. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.

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

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