Life Span: 1866 (Never Completed)
Location: Near the Corner of State and Madison Streets
Chicago Tribune, October 22, 1866
The illustration is from Harper’s Weekly, November 10, 1866, but their accompanying description is an excerpt from the following article.
An appalling calamity befel a portion of the city during the violent storm of last night, such a one as, happily, but rarely, becomes the duty of the chronicler of passing events to record—a disaster which has sent many human beings to their grave, and inflicted untold agonies upon as many more who have been rescued from the most dreadful event we can imagine as falling to the lot of the living. Between eleven and tweelve o’clock a terrific crash resounded ominously over, we might say, the whole of the central portion of the city. The majority of people imagined it to be a peal of thunder, yet there was something in the sound which boded a direr disaster, a more immediate peril than even the bolt of Jove himself. From Madison along State street to the bridge, and up and down all the immediate streets for a considerable distance, the shock was felt as of a terrible earthquake, and sleepers were startled from their slumbers by the noise and the concussion. There was a wide-spread feeling of terror among the citizens, even before anything could be ascertained as the the cause of the dreadful summons.
It proved to be the fall of a huge brick structure in process of erection near the corner of Madison and State streets, running from McVicker’s alley, and fronting on State. It was one of those hastily and cheaply cobbled together pieces of architecture which are a disgrace to any city—one of those card castles that seem to to waver and shake in every breeze, and which seem each moment to threaten destruction to the passenger. The gale last night, which, after all, was not excessively fierce, proved too much for this fragile mass of uncompleted mason-work, and the whole edifice caved in and fell like an avalanche, carrying death, and tortures worse than death, to the homes of many families who lived in the surrounding tenements. I one dreadful moment, as if the trump of doom had sounded, their wretched inmates, many of whome were chatting comfortably around their stoves and listening ton the wild storm without, were without a note of warning, crushed to pieces or thrown maimed and shuttered into the street.
Such a scene of devastation and misery as presented itself immediately after the edifice fell, it would be difficult to convey. Almost from McVicer’s Theatre, on Madison street, round the corner and along State street for some distance, making a very considerable section of a square, the frame tenements which had stood there, were so completely flattened, and crushed, that the upper stories were on a level with the sidewalk. The sidewalks were entirely uprooted from the ground, and the outer edges stuck out in the form of an abatti. Clambering up to these swaying planks, one had to slide down an inclined plane to the horrible mass of ruins in the centre. And such a mass! It was impenetrable one would have thought, and for the helpless men and women, and children who were groaning and screaming in agony far below there seemed but small hope of succor. To add to the horror and hopelessness of the case, the rain was coming down in pitiless torrents, while the wind seemed to sing a dismal corouach over the ruins. Few people were abroad in such a night, and for an hour, at least, no very material assistance could be rendered to the sufferers. People were seen frantically rushing up and down the streets, not knowing what to do, wildly crying for help, and their temporary frenzy, cursing the laggards who did not come. But it seemed as if the efforts of a thousand men would have been of little avail to extricate from such an indistinguishable pile of rubbish any one who lay beneath. The police were summoned, and from every station they soon began tio muster in large force. The fire-bell pealed forth its alarm, and the department were speedily on hand. The citizens, too, came to the spot in crowds, attracted by the alarm from the Court House. Then the work of excavation began in earnest. The inmates were dragged forth from their living graves, some terribly mangkled, some only cut and scratched, and some ebtirely unscathed. Every one was, of course, eager to help and the real difficulty with the police was now to keep the volunteers from overcrowding the scene of action. Body after body was carried out, most of them fortunately alive, and again the search was prosecuted, until about 2 o’clock it was supposed that the great majority of those who had been buried were recovered.
To give a more accurate conception as to the extent of the disaster, we will name the several tenements which fell under the terrible avalanche. On Madison street the first building next to the theatre is that which Mr. Frank Monroe occupies as a saloon. This was untouched. Adjoining it was a small boot and shoe store kept by B. Dulle, and the next was another of similar dimensions occupied as a barber shop by a man named Gilmore. At the corner of Madison and State streets was a saloon kept by James Stenson. Following that on State street was the confectionery store of Mr. Martin, and adjoining it an the elegant clothing store occupied by Hamilton & Clark. Then came the brick building. On the south side of it was a large dwelling house in which dwells a number of boarders, presided over by Mrs. Van Belsen. The upper portions of the above named houses were nearly all occupied by families, an the moment the builsing fell they were pretty full. One inmate, Mr. William Bohn, related he was sitting in his room over Hamilton & Craib’s, in quiet conversation with a friend, when the dreadful shock came. One cried out “God help us, it is an earthquake,” and in a moment they found themselves struggling in a cloud of dust amid bricks and rafters and mud. Mr. Bohn, by some miraculous chance was hurled clean through the window into the street. Mr. Hamilton escaped with some very heavy bruises, and one of his children was badly hurt. His oldest son, John Hamilton, was not extricated for a long time from the ruins, and when he was brought forth, he was more dead than alive. Mr. Gilmore, his wife and child, remained for a long time under the mountain of rubbish and their groans and cries were distinctly heard from the street. First Gilmore’s neice was taken out much unjured, and after a while Mr. Gilmore himself was extricated. He was severely injured. Joseph Dulle, a young man, brother of Mr. Dulle before mentioned, and who generally slept in the boot and shoe store, was crushed to death. His lifeless body was taken out about one o’clock. Up to the time of writing we are informed that several persons are still lying beneath the ruins, among the others is Mr. Gilmore’s wife and child.
How so many escaped being crushed to death, will seem little short of miraculous to every one who views the ruins. Yet such hair-breadth wscapes are often herd of in such accidents.
The building, which has been the cause of all the devastation, was being erected by Mr. Swartz as a wholesale store. It appears that the walls of the new block were but sixteen inches thick, much too thin for the great height to which they were carried up, and during Sunday they were found to have bulged out in an alarming manner, so much so that the opinion had been expressed that they would fall before morning, and the families in the adjoining buildings had retired wit a considerable feeling of apprehension.
At the time of our going to press a large crowd of men are actively at work cleaning away the ruins, and searching for still other unfortunates who may be suffering the most excruciating agonies beneath.
Since the above writing the dead bodies of Mrs. Gilmore and that of her little chil have been found. They are both frightfully bruised.
Chicago Tribune Editorial, October 23, 1866
On Sunday night four human beings were murdered in their beds in the vicinity of State and Madison streets. Had a man entered their dwellings and with pistol or knife taken their lives, the community would have been appalled at the enormity of the crime. Had a man stealthily kindled a flame under the tenements, and thus destroyed the lives of four human beings, the mere hanging of the heartless murderer would nit have satisfied the public judgement upon his crime. Had a man ventured beneath the frame buildings and by the use of saw and mallet so weakened their underpilings that they had fallen, burying in their ruins five human beings, there would have been but one opinion to the fate that such a wretch would merit. Yet in what degree does the wholesome slaughter of Sunday night differ from any other inhuman killing of harmless persons? We do not propose in advance of the Coroner, to charge the crime upon the architect, the builder, or the owner. Either may be guilty in whole or in part; all may share the responsibility, or neither may be justly chargeable. But a crime has been committed; some person or persons must be responsible, and upon that person or persons we charge the murder of these people. It will not do to say that there was an absence of all intent to kill any body. The man who fires his pistol wantonly in the streets where the probabilities are that he will kill some person, and does kill some one, is as guilty of a wicked intent as though he took deliberate aim at the man he shot. The man who throw’s a stone through his neighbor’s window, knowing the possibilities of a fatal result, and kills the neighbor, is as guilty as if his intent to kill were openly avowed. In this case there were erected two parallel walls 120 feet long, and fifty five feet high above the foundation, each wall only twelve inches in thickness. These parallel walls were connected at one end, and that end did not fall. But at the front there had not been a brick laid to connect or tie these side walls one to the other. These walls being nothing more thyan two two bricks piled sideways, one upon the other, to the height of fifty-five feet, fell, upon the first high wind that struck them, and in their fall buried five or six dwelling houses with their living inmates. We call that murder. The man who builds a fire so near to his neighbor’s dwelling, causing the death of its inmates, is as guilty of their death as if he set fire to the premises secretly. These walls were erected in the heart of a cluster of small frame dwellings. It was the business of all responsible parties to have so constructed them that no injury could have occurred to the adjoining premises, either by bricks or lumber. If it was a solemn duty to have guarded against injury to life and property by the falling of a single brick or timber upon the roofs or into the yards of the adjoining premises, then there was a responsibility resting upon some one to see that the entire building was so constructed, and strengthened and protected, that it would not fall upon the neighboring houses, destroying the property and lives of its inmates. It may be that this calamity was the result of ignorance; if so, then it was a carelessness so criminal in its nature, that the crime is only enhanced by the nature of the apology.
This is not the first accident of this kind that has happened in Chicago; other buildings have fallen, owing to like stupidity, or carelessness, or worse, of the persons responsible for the mode of their construction. Buildings have been erected in this city this season—buildings of the most pretentious character—which, so far as the strength of their walls and timbers in proportion to the general dimensions of the edifices, have been wanton abuses of public confidence. Men claim and exercise with impunity the right to erect buildings to rent and to be occupied as dwellings and for business purposes, which are in fact but so many traps, which are eventually to fail, burying beneath them the victims of this criminal disregard for human safety. There are buildings now in this city, and perhaps others in construction, which, despite their marble fronts and gaudy externals, should be condemned as nuisances, dangerous to the public safety, and should be torn down without delay.
The previous instances of the falling of buildings in Chicago have been unattached with loss of life, and have not attracted the attention which they deserved. This calamity, however, should be sufficient to arouse public interest in their own own protection. Citizens occupying dwellings and stores should have some assurance that the new building erecting near them will not when finished, or before finished, tumble over and crush them to death. Men renting offices and stores in large buildings should have some guarantee that the walls will not burst out, letting them fall amid the ruins. The public when invited to attend a public meeting or other gathering, should have some reasonable guarantee that the building in which they may assemble will not give way, involving them in its destruction. Every insecure building erected in the city is a trap which sooner or later will destroy human life. It is time that the erection of such traps should be prohibited. It is time that the rapacity of owners should be checked by considerations of safety. It is time there should be a law which, by its strong arm, should arrest the construction of insecure buildings, nd should interpose its power to protect lives and property of others against the criminal ignorance and recklessness of builders and owners.
The Legislature is about to meet. This terrible calamity furnishes ample argument for the necessity of some legislation. Let us have some authority somewhere to interpose for the protection of the public. Let us have some building regulation that will prevent the repetition of such homicides as that of Sunday night. Let us have an authority not only to compel all buildings to be constructed of such strength and material as will be commensurate with their dimensions, but also as an authority that will compel them to be constructed in a manner consistent with safety. Just south of the building that fell on Sunday night was a large double house used as a boarding house. Had the walls fallen upon it, who can tell how many of the fifty or sixty inmates would have come out alive or injured? Shall this thing go on until some day a massacre of three or four hundred victims shall proclaim the heartlessness of our past inaction? In every other large city the privilege of building is conditioned upon assurances of public safety. No building can be erected which has not been certified to be of such strength as to warrant the neighborhood against the dangers of its falling; nor are buildings permitted to go up according to the whim or interest of those erecting them. Had we any such regulations here, and had we proper officers to enforce them, those walls would never have been permitted to be built fifty or sixty feet high without some certain precautions against falling. As it is, one man builds an unprotected and insecure wall adjoining and overhanging his neighbor’s house. If it be dangerous, the neighbor must move out and go away or run from the risk. The owner of the wall claims “the right” to build on his own ground. But had we a proper lae, he could not do this without first making that wall secure.
The four mangled corpses upon Madison street, appeal in their silent, but most eloquent horror against any further neglect in this matter. These victims ask in the circumstances of their death, how many other lives must be sacrificed before the people of Chicago shall invoke a law for the protection of the public. We have a law against burglars, but none against wanton crushing in our habitations and agonizing murder in our sleep at night. We repeat, is it not time to act in this matter, and put an end to architecture homicide?
Red indicates Brick Structures
Yellow indicates Frame Structures
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map
Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1868
The city charter was amended at the last session of the Legislature by adding to it the following provisions:
- The Fire Marshal, the Assistant Fire Marshals, the members of the Board of Police, and such members of the Fire Department, shall be Fire Wardens, and shall have and exercise all rights and powers, and shall perform all the duties now conferred, exercised, imposed or required by law of Fire Wardens. The Fire Wardens are hereby authorized to enter upon and inspect any building, place or places, for the purpose of ascertaining whether the same is or are in safe condition, and, if not, to direct or cause the same to be made so.
The Common Council of the city of Chicago have power, by ordinance,
- To control and regulate the construction of buildings, chimneys and stacks, and to prevent and prohibit the erection or maintenance of any insecure or unsafe building, chimney, stack, wall or chimney, in said city, and to declare them to be nuisances, and to provide for their summary abatement.
These powers are ample to enable the Common Council and the Police Commissioners, acting in concert, to provide for a thorough inspection of all buildings erected and in course of erection, and to require them to be so constructed as to avoid the common chances of fire. Under these and other powers, the city government may establish and enforce building regulations which at least could prohibit many imperfections which daily experiences has shown to invite fires, and to make them destructive.
We have, however, in the ordinances of the city many wholesome regulations which the authorities do not enforce, and by the neglect to enforce which there is always more or less danger of fire.
If the city had a good building code, and men who would enforce it, we might have fewer destructive fires, and a vast improvement in the value of our property.
Chicago Tribune, November 28, 1875
THE NEW BUILDING ORDINANCE.
We have at last a competent building ordinance, under which it is believed (Superintendent of Buildings) Mr. Bailey’s inspection-bureau may be able to restrain the flagrant violations of public safety that have been endured in Chicago since the fire of 1871 under the patch-work ordinance that has been our only protection. The new ordinance, adopted Friday evening last, has been the subject of much careful consideration by the leading architects, builders, and insurance agents of the city, and its adoption as a whole by a vote of 26 to 5 is the most credible action the Council has taken for a long time. The propositions in the Council to tinker at it were fortunately defeated, because a large body of men unfamiliar with building are not the proper persons to treat a matter of this kind. The best test for it is actual experience, and we have sufficient confidence in Supt. Bailey to believe that he will administer it honestly, and discover and defects it may be proved to have in its pleasant shape. The value of the ordinance, if it is a complete and effective as it is believed, in two-fold:
- 1. The increased protection it will afford against the danger of general conflagrations; and
2. The decreased rates of insurance which it will guarantee to property-owners
With this ordinance in practical working there is reason to believe that Chicago will henceforth be regarded by insurance companies as one of the safest cities in the country, instead of one of the most dangerous, for the placing of risks.
The new ordinance fully and unreservedly reaffirms the fire-limits as co-extensive with the city limits, and requires that the walls of all buildings henceforth to be erected within the corporate limits shall be constructed wholly of incombustible materials, and with foundations of masonry. The exceptions are in the case of elevators, which may be built of wood, but must be protected by an envelope of incombustible material that is rigid and firm i itself; sheds, which must have a slanting roof, and may not exceed twelve feet in height, twelve feet in width, and sixteen feet in length, and which may only be used for storage of wood and coal; and, also, brick buildings of not more than twenty feet in height may be set upon wood-sills, provided in the space between the sill and the ground there shall be an intervention of some fire-proof material. The latter exception is intended for those localities which are without sewerage.
One of the great nuisances and most serious dangers in the city since the adoption of the late ordinance has been the repairing of frame buildings damaged by fire. The present law, like the old one, provides that a damage by fire, decay, or otherwise, of more than50 per cent of the value of such buildings shall warrant the Superintendent of Buildings in condemning them as public nuisances and abating them in his own way, unless there shall be an application for a committee of reference; in the latter case the committee shall consist of three disinterested person, one of whom shall chosen by the owner of the building, another by the Superintendent of Buildings, and a third to be chosen by these two. The referee on the part of the city was formerly chosen by the Mayor, who was likely to be deceived; but since Supt. Bailey will henceforth have the choice it is hoped that he may be more fortunate in his selections. He should proceed under this provision against many public nuisances in the city that have been damaged more than 50 per cent by decay; and the line should be strictly drawn in every case of fire. It is this provision more than any one which, if rigidly applied, will enable authorities to improve the condition of certain inflammable districts near the centre of the city which are a constant menace to its safety.
Another valuable feature of the new ordinance is the stricter definition of the requirements in regard to the projections and ornamentation of buildings. It os provided that all stoops, steps, balconies, verandas, porches, bay-windows, towers, observatories, dormer windows, etc., shall be wholly constructed of incombustible material, with a few exceptions in the case of first and second stories and dwelling-houses, for which other rules are provided. It is also required that all cornices, gutters, eaves, and parapets shall be made of incombustible material. The same is true of roofs, except that composition-roofs shall be excluded; but the regulations in regard to the latter require a covering of dry gravel, and, when they have a mean height of 45 feet, also an incombustible protection under the weather-covering. All Mansard and Gothic roofs must be so constructed as to exclude wood entirely.
Additional protection afforded by many other requirements of the ordinance, among them the following:
Every roof must be accessible either by scuttle or iron steps running up the outside walls.
All buildings more than 56 feet high, and covering an area exceeding 5,000 superficial feet, must be provided with 2½-inch metallic stand-pipe extending above the roof, with hose-couplings conforming to the size and pattern used by the Fire Department. All signs at a height of 40 feet must be of incombustible material, and other signs may not be more than 2 feet wide nor form a part of the building. Outside walls of dwelling; must be carried up at least 20 inches above the roof. The regulations concerning the proximity of flues, hearths, steam-pipes, furnaces and their pipes to the wood-work, should be strictly enforced, and they will then prove to be among the best provisions of the law. The provisions in regard to the obtaining of permits, which some of the Aldermen wanted is a strike out, will probably prove to be an important means of enforcing the ordinance.
It may well be doubted whether the ordinance is adequate in regard to the penalties it fixes for a violation of all its provisions. A conviction subjects the offender to a fine of $10 to $100 for the first offense, $25 to $200 for the second offense, and $300 to $1,000 for the third offense within a lapse of one year, and such penalty may then be enforced only by am action of debt in the name of the city. It would be better if the collection of the fines were enforced by imprisonment on failure of payment, and if the Superintendent of Buildings were permitted to take a more summary process in the case of the more flagrant violations of the law. We may, nevertheless, be thankful for the great improvements the ordinance offers.