A. H. Andrews Building II Also known as the Ayer Building.
Life Span: 1890-1898
Location: 215-221 Wabash Avenue, between Adams and Monroe streets.
Architect: L. G. Hallberg
Rand McNally’s Bird’s-Eye-Views of Chicago, 1893
The A, H, Andrews & Co. Building.
At 215-221 Wabash Avenue, like Kimball Hall, farther south, makes a fine showing on the street, having graceful bays and liberal provision for light. The building is 80 feet wide, 125 feet deep, and 95 feet high, with 7 stories and basement; has 2 stores, 25 offices, and 3 elevators. The building has a stone and steel front, and is mainly occupied by A. H. Andrews & Co., office and school furniture manufacturers and wholesalers. It was erected in 1890.
A. H. Andrews Building
Chicago Tribune, December 6, 1895
In the Circuit Court yesterday morning the A. H. Andrews company, No. 215 Wabash avenue, manufacturers and dealers in folding beds, school and commercial furniture, confessed judgement in favor of the Globe National Bank on two notes amounting to $25,787.
Later in the day the company made an assignment in the County Court to Frederick A. Hollbrook, the secretary and manager. Shortly afterwards the following statement was issued by the assignee:
It is impossible to say at the present time what the resources and liabilities will amount to, but the assets are ample to pay all creditors full.
The cause of the assignment was the continued period of hard times, which particularly effect a business like that of A. H. Andrews company, which has manufactured the very highest grade of commercial furniture.
The assets of the company are believed to be $500,000 and the liabilities to amount to fully $400,000.
Failure Not Unexpected.
The shaky condition of the A. H. Andrews company has been rumored in business circles for some time, it is said, and a number of concerns from whom it purchased materials have for months demanded cash for their goods. This has forced the company to borrow largely from the banks, according to report, to secure the necessary ready money.
The causes assigned for the collapse are numerous. The A. H. Andrews company manufactured only the finest qualities of commercial furniture. The continued financial depression practically destroyed the demand for these high-priced goods of which the company carried an enormous stock. Consequently the rich profits of former years were gradually consumed. The business was conducted at enormous expense. The bi-weekly pay-roll amounted from $9,000 to $12,000.
History of the Company.
The A. H. Andrews company was incorporated in March, 1884, with a capital stock of $1,000,000.1 The incorporators were A. H. Andrews, T. A. Cary, and F. A. Holbrook. The present officers are: President A. H. Andrews; Vice-President, S. Z. Holbrook; Secretary, F. A. Holbrook; Treasurer, A. H. Cary.
The company has done an enormous business in office and school furniture, and has enjoyed a practical monopoly in supplying schoolhouses throughout the West.
Chicago Tribune, March 17, 1898
The Ayer Building, 215-221 Wabash avenue, was destroyed yesterday by a fire which will rank among the city’s calamities, rivaling the worst in fierceness and rapidity. In these respects it recalls the burning of the great World’s Fair buildings and the Coliseum destruction.It is second in horror only to the burning of the Cold Storage house at the World’s Fair, in which a score or more of persons perished.
The number of lives lost is uncertain. Three human bodies were carried to a morgue within the first hour of the fire. Fourteen other persons are missing. Some of them no doubt are dead. Twenty-six were injured, four of whom may die.2
The fire imperiled the lives of upwards of 200 persons in the Ayer Building and of scores of policemen and firemen who were called to the scene. The list of dead and injured grew from hour to hour, but rumor exaggerated it fourfold. The exact number of deaths will not be known with certainty until the ashes are thoroughly searched.
Fire patrolmen who were engaged in spreading tarpaulins over the pianos in the first floor stores were called off by their chief just in time to escape being buried under the falling walls.
The fatalities and the rescues were attended with a series of heroic actions worthy of the best faith in human nature. One woman distinguished herself especially and Father Muldoon of the St. Charles Borromeo’s Church exerted himself, with others, for the rescue of the imperiled ones.
The insurance carried on the Ayer Building and contents amounted to $389,100. The Twitchell piano building, partly burned, carried $17,000 insurance. The Holbrook Building and contents were insured for $55,000. The losses exceed the insurance by a considerable margin. A round estimate of the property losses is $500,000.
Avenues of Escape Closed.
Within ten minutes after the discovery of the fire in the third story storeroom of Alfred Peats, wall paper dealer, the building was a furnace of flame from the cellar to the roof, and almost every avenue of escape has been cut off. The light shaft from the third to the seventh floor was converted into a great chimney. Balls of fire shot skyward. The tenants who had not rushed down the dark, narrow stairs on the first alarm, or succeeded in crowding into one of the two elevators in the front and rear, were forced by smoke and flames to the front and rear of the building, where they clung to narrow window ledges or tried to clamber down the fire-escape.
The only fire-escape for this building, 80 feet by 160 feet, was only eighteen inches wide, and it was near the northern wall in the alley. The intense heat quickly made the rungs of the ladder blistering and several men and women tumbled from one platform to another, and finally to the ground. The occupants of the lower platform staid there a few moments, waiting for help, but none came, and they finally dropped into the alley. The ladder was crowded with a double line of people inside and outside, who jostled one another regardless of sex or age.
A woman was left standing on the platform. Her cries were answered by a 12-year-old boy, who brought a ladder and held it on his shoulder while she descended to earth.
Tenants of the Building.
The building was a seven-story affair of the slow combustion mill construction type. It was erected in 1893 for the A. H. Andrews Furniture company by Simon Florsheim, the corset manufacturer. After the failure of the furniture house the building was leased to the Conover Piano company and was occupied by the following concerns:
Emerson Piano company, north half of lower floor
Conover Piano company, south half of lower floor
Chicago Cottage Organ company, wholesale, second floor
Alfred Peats, wallpaper storeroom, third floor
National Music company, fourth floor
Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath school supply department, fifth floor
Albert Beirly, fifth floor
Sweet, Wallach & Co., photographic supply house
William A. Olmstead & Co., school and scientific supplies.
The front and rear walls of the building were of iron and glass and the side walls were of brick. They were thick enough to withstand the heat and remain standing, along with the freight elevator shafts in the northwest and southwest corners of the building. The interior appears to have been lightly built. The great element of danger was the large light shaft in the center, extending from the third floor to the roof.
The fire began at 10:50 o’clock a.m. in Alfred Peats’ wall paper wareroom, and is supposed to have been caused by a gas jet coming in contact with a roll of wall paper. It had been burning only a few minutes when several explosions shook the front and rear walls and so weakened them that they fell outward. These explosions occurred on the seventh floor, where chemicals were stored by Sweet, Wallach & Co.
The members of Engine Company No. 5 had hairbreadth escapes. Lieutenant Lacey, and Pipemen Freitag, Rice, Tenner, McNulty, and Quinlan had two leads of hose directed from the roof of the Kohlsaat structure along with showers of brick and mortar. The firemen leaped back just in time to escape.
The furnace-like heat shivered plate glass windows to millions of pieces all along the east side of Wabash avenue from Adams to Jackson street. The flames swept across the Union loop elevated structure, setting fire to the cross ties and sleepers. The bfiremen and a bucket brigade of guards in the service of the loop extinguished the flames before great damage was done.
Panic in the Street.
The falling of the walls caused the wildest panic in the streets adjoining the burning building. The crowd stampeded in every direction, and hundreds took refuge in the long line of delayed street cars in Wabash avenue, north and south of the endangered block. The loop station at Adams street was jammed with a curious crowd which turned and ran pellmell to the street when the walls fell. Teams in the street were stampeded, and people were trampled mercilessly. Fortunately no one in the street was killed.
Another element of danger was the multitude of intercrossing electric wires and guide wires which were released by the falling of the walls. Wires were thrown over the loop structure by the collapse and falling across the third rail they became live and conducted the electricity from the loop to the ground. The firemen had great difficulty in escaping the dangerous swaying death-dealers. When the streams of water were played for a moment on the third rail several firemen were stunned.
All afternoon and all night long eight streams played on the ruins, and it is probable that this will have to be continued today, as the wreckage is too hot to allow the presence of workmen. Chief Musham, however, said a big force of men will be put at work today clearing away the debris if it is possible.
Leaping to death from the burning building.
Emerson Building Fire—Structure in ruins in twenty minutes after the alarm was given.
Chicago Tribune, March 19, 1898
The discovery of a few ordinary building nails where there should have been rod spikes may assist materially in placing the responsibility of the Ayer Building horror where it belongs. The weak point in the building, according Assistant Commissioner of Buildings Timothy O’Shea, was defective tying of the columns from front to rear. Mr. O’Shea failed to find any tie except four and a half inch spikes, which were driven upwards through holes in the shoulder flanges of the columns into the wooden girders. Architect L. G. Hallberg, who designed the building and supervised its erection, showed from his copybook that the plates were called for by the specifications, and an examination of the ruins disclosed that the plates were used, but that the spikes were apparently much too small for the strain upon them.
Further search through the ruins yesterday disclosed a number of tie plates which were attached to the girders by common building nails of the size known as “12 and 20 penny.” Architect Hallberg saw these nails and declared their use was contrary to his orders without his knowledge. He was inclined to believe a workman had been guilty of substitution.
Work of Coroner’s Jury.
Part of the work of the Coroner’s jury will be to decide who was at fault, and it is possible that the blame may be imputed to the architect, whose duty it was to see the specifications complied with, the building inspector whose duty it was to see that a stable building was constructed, the contractor, and the Building Commissioner in whose term of office the work was done. The Building Commissioner who issued to permit was John M. Dunphy. Architect Hallberg has found the original permit in his papers. It was dated Feb. 3, 1890, and the fee was $130.60. A record of the permit was also found in the office of the Commissioner of Buildings.
Significance of Nails.
The significance of finding nails in place of rod spikes is apparent to every builder. The iron columns in a mill construction building should be firmly tied together, so that there will be an unbroken chain from front to rear and from side to side, the strap iron tie rods and the girders forming the connecting bands. The continuous tie in a mill constructed columnar building is just as strong as the weakest tie in the whole structure. The omission of the tie at any point, especially in the series from front to rear, or the use of insufficient material in any tie vitiates the entire structure and renders it liable to collapse whenever the strain comes on the weak place.
Sections of the iron mass weighing tons may be seen on the sidewalk. The theory of the Building Commissioner’s office is that as soon as the fire attacked a few of the girders, where the joint was weak, the nails or spikes were loosened and drawn. Then the weight of the heavy rear and front walls, assisted perhaps by the explosions, dragged down the columns of the outer walls and the interior collapsed, or possibly that the collapse of the interior, due to the parting of one or more of the girders, which were supposed to be firmly tied together, preceded the falling of the outer walls.
The further the firemen have penetrated into the ruins the more apparent it has become that the Ayer Building was not burned down. Girders and beams charred little more than half an inch deep are found throughout the debris.
Fire Inspector Conway is ill at West Baden Springs, Ind., but he will return in time to assist Deputy Coroner Williams in the inquiry into the causes of the disaster. He has an operative at work gathering facts.
Origin of the Fire.
The weight of testimony still locates the origin of the fire on the third floor, where the Decorative Wallpaper company and Alfred Peats had hundreds of tons of wallpaper stored in tiers that reached almost to the ceiling.
H. M. Van Housen of the Emerson Piano company said that not exceeding ten gallons of varnish was carried by his company, and the Cable Piano company and the Chicago Cottage Organ company estimated the amount of varnish on hand at even less than ten gallons.
New Building Ordinances.
The new building ordinance which is to be introduced in the Council at the next meeting probably will be rushed through under the Mayor’s influence. Its main design is to codify the present ordinances and place responsibly for the safety of new buildings upon the architects and contractors. A new section will make it the duty of the Commissioner of Buildings to make inspections of buildings and make reports on all violations of the building laws and ordinances. Another, which will authorize the forcible removal of all dangerous structures, is worded as follows:
The Commissioner of Buildings shall have authority, if he finds any building or part thereof in such condition as to endanger life, and so that such danger may be averted by the immediate application of precautionary measures to be taken, and all work necessary to render said building or any part thereof safe to be done, after having served written notice upon the owner, lessee, occupant, or agent of said building personally.
The Commissioner of Buildings shall also have authority to direct the fire department, after written notice has been served upon the owner, lessee, occupant, or agent personally, to tear down any defective or dangerous wall, or any building, or any part thereof, which may be constructed in violation of the terms of this ordinance.
Architect Weary’s Letter.
Edwin D. Weary, an architect in the Marquette Building, has written a letter for publication, in which he declares he was asked to pass upon the plans of the Ayer Building and that he pronounced them thoroughly defective and criminal before the building was erected. He declares he made the following strictures on the plans:
That the general construction of the building would be no better than that used in cheap, three-story warehouses; the joists were to be sustained with stirrups, without the rods, and without plastering; that the building was not self-sustaining and the foundations inadequate, the front composed of iron and glass without ties, and that it would cost about half what the estimates called for,
The concluding paragraph of the letter follows:
Notwithstanding this the plans were approved by A. H. Andrews & Co., and after moving in I at once proceeded to put a steel ceiling over the part occupied by myself. The building was later sold to the Ayer estate at an enormous profit, through the agency of Mr. Holbrook. There are more buildings of this type in Chicago, and I presume their time will come sooner or later.
A. H. Andrews denied that he had approved of plans which had been declared defective.
A. H. Andrews Catalog
Features of the Triumph Desk
A. H. Andrews Co.
Display ad from the 30 November 1903 Iroquois Theater Program
A. H. Andrews Plant
Located on Mather Street between Halsted and Desplaines
A. H. Andrews Building
Rand McNally Birds Eye Views
1This furniture company was founded in 1865 by Alfred H. Andrews, a Connecticut native who moved to Chicago in 1857. By the end of the 1860s, Andrews employed about 70 men, who made about $150,000 worth of furniture each year. They had become the largest firm in the city’s robust furniture industry, employing about 500 people and manufacturing about $600,000 worth of school and office furniture each year. During the 1880s, the company opened branches in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Andrews & Co. started to produce metal furniture in the early 1890s, but it entered bankruptcy in 1895 and sold off its assets in order to pay debts. In the early 1900’s company reorganized as a wholesaler and was no longer a manufacturer.
2 The final count of deaths in the fire was sixteen.
Lowell DeWall says
Very helpful and interesting article. I have a desk from the Andrews co.mpany and was researching it. Also have a chair that was made in the 300 block of Wabash by J. S. Ford and Johnson company.. Makes me enjoy them even more!! Thanks, Lowell