Fire fascinates. Fire frightens. Fire feeds. Fire consumes.
We may all have a fascination for the dancing flames in a fireplace or a campfire. We may be able to sit and watch for hours and just relax. At Christmas time we have been fond of the Yule Log channel. No, it’s not the same, but it is safer and comes with holiday music. We cook with fire and we actually heat our home with it via the furnace in the basement. It is essential to modern-day life.
Then again, we fear fire for what it can do when it is out of control. I was horrified when the news came up on my phone of the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris. I had visited the famed cathedral twice and marveled at the architecture.
You may know that it was the architectural advancement of “flying buttresses” that allowed for the high and heavy vaulted ceiling to be supported. Without this feature, the roofed would have buckled and caved in. It took 182 years to build the cathedral (1136-1345) but it only took 15 hours for a fire to topple the steeple, destroy the roof and damage the upper walls and windows. It is reported that in another 30 minutes the building would have completely collapsed.
Here in Chicago, as in most big cities, we have had spectacular fires. In fact, from October 8th to 10th, 1871 most of Chicago burned to the ground. Three-hundred lives were lost. The burning embers were blown high and far and it was just too much for firefighters of that era. Stronger building codes followed as the city rebuilt and hoped the new buildings would be more resistant to fire.
Although we often say that only the Chicago Water Tower in the center of downtown and the pumping station across the street were all that survived the fire, it’s not quite true. The magnificent St. Michael’s Catholic Church, completed in 1869, was largely destroyed by fire, but the walls and the tower were left standing and the church was rebuilt.
In the 1990’s I attended a wedding there.
Chicago Water Tower (Photo credit: Nicholas G. Mertens)
Certainly, there were many large fires after this, but the first of my memory was the fire at Our Lady of the Angels School on December 1, 1958.
The fire broke out while school was still in session. While most of the 1600 students were able to get out, some were cut off by smoke and flame. The older building was considered up to code because it was in compliance when it was built and was “grandfathered in.” Which is to say, it did not have fire alarms, a direct line to the fire department, fire escapes, or fire doors.
Some students jumped from the high second story windows. Ninety-two students and three nuns perished in the fire.
Following this, we all took our grade school fire drills seriously. We knew the way to the exits and where to meet outside. Fire inspectors were frequent school visitors and fire alarms were installed inside and out.
Teachers drilled us on keeping quiet and moving quickly. In case of fire, we would not be returning to our classrooms to pray if there was smoke or fire in our way.
In 1958 the city began to build McCormick Place, the large convention hall that would include the 5000-seat Arie Crown Theater. Sensitive to our history of spectacular fires, the concrete and steel building was touted as fire-proof and opened on Chicago’s lakefront in November 1960.
McCormick Place 1967 (Photo: International Housewares Association.)
Around two in the morning, January 16, 1967, a fire broke out behind one of the booths of the National Housewares Manufacturers Show. At 2:30, the Fire Chief arrived and sounded the fifth alarm. All fire department personnel responded to the scene to try to save the building. The blaze was even fought by fire boats on the lake in the bitterly cold weather. By ten AM the roof had collapsed and the massive convention center was destroyed.
The theater was saved.
Church fires large and small are part of our history. Older buildings with a lot of aging wood are particularly vulnerable. Some are repaired after the fire and live on. Others are not so lucky.
There is always a greater concern when the building is a matter of civic pride or architectural significance. Such is the case with Holy Name Cathedral.
Holy Name Cathedral interior (Photo credit: Terence Faircloth)
The first structure, a large brick building whose cornerstone indicated 1852, was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. Its replacement was dedicated in 1875. The massive Gothic-style structure holds 1200 people and the interior is 70 feet high. The ceiling is largely wood and was meant to symbolize the “Tree of Life.”
In February 2009 a fire broke out in the roof and the attic of the building. According to reports, first responders entered the attic without helmets or oxygen tanks. Fast work saved the Cathedral. The repairs to the roof and ceiling were completed in six months. Without this response, the building could have suffered damage like Notre Dame. Or worse.
No matter the great care we take, devastating accidents happen. In the Notre Dame and Holy Name Cathedral fires, it is believed electrical problems may have been the cause. It is hard to say for sure at Notre Dame since much of the building remains unsafe to inspect. At Holy Name the cause may have been related to a snow and ice melting system which was installed on the roof.
A Chicago Fire Department spokesman stated after the Notre Dame fire that fire officials are inspecting large buildings every day to make sure that there is a building plan at the entrance, and exits are clearly marked.
In older buildings of historic interest, they want to know what unique challenges may exist and about which they need to know. Even “fireproof” buildings, like McCormick Place, can burn to the ground.
“Rebuilt, but never forgotten – the McCormick Place fire of 1967,” ExhibitCityNews.com January 1, 2014.
“Notre Dame Cathedral Fire: Investigators think an electrical short-circuit most likely caused Paris blaze, AP reports,” abc7chicago.com April 18, 2019.
“Holy Name survives fire thanks to firefighters,”abc7chicago.com/archive February 4, 2009.