fire escapes

classic-iron-fire-escape-chicago-il-christine-tillThe best part about lecturing to the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s docent class is that the talk itself is kind of a formality–the Q&A afterwards has always been extensive and tons of fun.  Their questions are invariably either tough ones (can we even say that the Monadnock is a “masonry” skyscraper?  That one occupied us for a good fifteen minutes.  Answer: sure, but it’s more accurate to say that it’s a transitional one that uses a hybrid of masonry and steel to stand up against both gravity and wind).

One question that touched on a serious life safety issue came up: why do some period buildings have exterior steel fire escapes but others don’t?  The answer is a pretty gruesome one (and as CAF’s Hallie Rosen pointed out, starting off any answer with “the answer is a pretty gruesome one” is a GREAT way to ensure the audience is all ears).

In March, 1898, a fire broke out in the Ayer building, a seven-story, heavy timber-framed building on Wabash St.  The fire’s spread was rapid and intense–it shattered plate glass windows across the street–and it occurred in the middle of the day when the structure was fully occupied.  More than a dozen occupants lost their lives.

While most of the press coverage focused on the shoddy construction of the building and a small light court that formed an effective chimney, a subsequent fire in the Shoreman building, between the Manhattan and Old Colony buildings on Dearborn Street, highlighted a fire escape itself as the cause of several deaths.  Occupants leaving the upper floors via a narrow iron ladder attached to the rear of the building were forced to descend past windows on the fire-engulfed lower floors.  The ladder had become “a skeleton of red hot iron,” forcing people to jump or burn to death.  Those in the Shoreman–which burned on a weekend–had been luckier:

““Had all the usual occupants of the Shoneman Building been at work, it is probable many would have found themselves in the same predicament as the hapless tenants of the Ayer Building… The fire escapes in both cases consisted of a narrow iron platform at a window on each floor and an iron ladder close to the window and scarcely twelve inches from the wall, where the flames made it red hot in an instant after they broke through the window. Luckily, most of the tenants of the Shoneman Building had an opportunity to get down the iron ladder before the flames got at it. (“Fire Ruin at Noon.” Chicago. Mar. 22, 1898, 5).

Subsequent agitation for improved fire escapes inspired code provisions that made minor adjustments to requirements for exterior stairs, requiring them to be moved “far enough away from the window to prevent its heating even after the flames break through the windows,” (ibid.).  But cold weather, rain, water from firefighters hoses, and lingering exposure to heat, smoke, and flame made these escapes dangerous enough that by 1907 architect F. W. Fitzpatrick made a radical suggestion covered by Inland Architect:

“A valuable suggestion for the preservation of life and property comes from Architect F. W. Fitzpatrick. This refers to the main stairway which as usually planned and constructed affords great facility for the spread of flames throughout the building. This danger point it is suggested should be made of incombustible materials, and be used as the fire escape of the building. The fact that it could be made to perfectly serve as the fire escape would be a strong argument with the owner to consent to the construction of the main stairs with enclosures being of fire-resisting materials. The enclosure would need to be provided with self-closing fire doors at each landing. The stairway should lead directly to the street or into a fire-proof corridor opening to the outside, and having no openings not protected against fire. The stairway enclosure so built would constitute a bulwark against the spread of fire from floor to floor, and on this account alone would justify its fire-proof construction. The added advantage that it would form the best possible fire escape, and save the expense of any other, would be a further strong factor in favor of its being made incombustible. Changes are urged in municipal ordinances to require such construction. The advantages are so great and direct that the movement should meet with little opposition.”  (“Fireproof Stairways as Fire Escapes.” The Inland Architect and News Record. Vol. L, no. 2. August, 1907. 14).

This suggestion lingered for a long time–as late as 1927 the AIA and state fire marshal were agitating for internal fire escapes only, following New York City’s lead.  (“Calls Outside Fire Escapes Public Menace,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 4, 1927.  C1).  Enclosed fire escapes, surrounded by fire-resisting walls, were finally made mandatory in the city in 1938, though older buildings were grandfathered in.  This means that iron fire escapes still provide last-resort exiting on older buildings throughout the city, but they’re also one more building element that marks the change between pre-Depression and post-war skyscraper construction.

Two final interesting notes: in both the Shoreman and Ayer fires, many survivors successfully rode building elevators to safety, albeit with crowding and stampeding for the cars reported in both cases.  And the Ayer building’s site, after being cleared of the rubble, served as the site for a replacement that is an exemplar of the “expressed frame” and Chicago window formula that would dominate the coming decade…and yes, that’s a patently hazardous steel fire escape hanging off of the southernmost window bay.  Some lessons took a long, long time to be fully learned…

ayer ext 1 copy

cold but friendly…


This weekend’s morning view could be worse..

Chicago in February is always a bit of a mix…on the one hand it’s cold enough to kill you outside, on the other hand the welcomes inside always seem that much warmer.  Especially at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, where we threw around skyscraper history for a couple of hours yesterday with the incoming class of docents.  A great crowd, as always, and some really insightful discussions…future walking tour takers are going to be well-served.

And the best part?  I get to do it again tomorrow morning with the second half of the class.  In hallowed surroundings.  And it’s supposed to get up to 20°!

Thanks, as always, to Jen Masengarb and Hallie Rosen at CAF for the warmest welcomes in town.  Looking forward to seeing new faces and a few regulars tomorrow morning…

commas and details and docents… Chicago for the rest of the week for the best gig EVER–talking to new docents at the Chicago Architecture Foundation about skyscrapers.  Full report to follow.

On the flight here I was catching up on this week’s New Yorker, and it has one of the finest essays I can remember reading on the mechanics of writing.  Self-confessed “comma queen” Mary Norris, who has been a “query proofreader” at the magazine for more than twenty years, has the lead article in an anniversary issue, and she talks about her obsession with punctuation and what it means in terms of the qualitative and quantitative meaning of a bit of text:

The comma as we know it was invented by Aldo Manuzio, a printer working in Venice, circa 1500. It was intended to prevent confusion by separating things. In the Greek, komma means “something cut off,” a segment. (Aldo was printing Greek classics during the High Renaissance. The comma was a Renaissance invention.) As the comma proliferated, it started generating confusion. Basically, there are two schools of thought: One plays by ear, using the comma to mark a pause, like dynamics in music; if you were reading aloud, the comma would suggest when to take a breath. The other uses punctuation to clarify the meaning of a sentence by illuminating its underlying structure. Each school believes that the other gets carried away.

She goes on at wonderful length describing the serial, or “Oxford” comma, which I admit that I use regularly, enthusiastically, and diligently (see what I did there?).  The Oxfords comma prevents ambiguity like this:

“We invited the strippers, J.F.K. and Stalin.”

But it can seem pedantic, too, and she contrasts this with the technically useless commas in writing by James Salter:

“She smiled that stunning, wide smile.”

That’s grammatically incorrect (can you replace the comma with “and” and still have the sentence sound right?  uh, no…), but it’s lyrically right on.

A couple of days ago I found myself almost accidentally describing a stringcourse detail as like a “semicolon,” and reading this essay made my delve into my subconscious a bit and think about how detailing is really the architect’s version of punctuation.  We use it sometimes as a technical ordering system, other times as a stylistic device.  Kahn’s concrete reveals, for instance, punctuated his walls into human scale, legible phrasing that lets you read their construction (technique) and their overall proportion (poetics) brilliantly.  Norris’ essay, with some translating and replacing designers for writers, could be a manifesto for why detail (punctuation) matters, and why staying up all night wondering about whether a comma (shot line) is in the right place or not is really the essence of what we do.  Speaking of another New Yorker piece by Marc Fisher, she writes that his

…punctuation is almost like Braille, providing a kind of bas-relief, accentuating the topography of the sentence. It looks choppy, but you don’t have to chop it up when you read it….It’s not insane—it’s not even nutty. It’s just showing what’s important in the sentence in a subtle way. Another publication would let you figure it out for yourself. And, if that’s what you want, you can always read some other magazine.

Required reading…

Usually when C-SPAN shows up in Iowa…

Gannon VIsuals

…there’s a presidential candidate not far behind.  Not today…their American History TV was in town taping our “Big and Tall” class on (what else?) Chicago’s high rises.  No word on when (or if!) it will end up on air, but a happy change of pace and scenery today.  Thanks to all who helped make this happen, and to some well-placed and timed student questions.  As one of the cameraman said, “fewer snoozers than usual” in a university class setting…

arts and crafts, transcendentalist style

I’m pulling together notes for an upcoming Big and Tall lecture on the Arts and Crafts–a key moment in the development of a morality of building, just as Viollet-le-duc (today’s lecture) represented a quantum leap in the ethics of building.  And I run across this:

Nothing is arbitrary, nothing is insulated in beauty. It depends forever on the necessary and the useful. The plumage of the bird, the mimic plumage of the insect, has a reason for its rich colors in the constitution of the animal. Fitness is so inseparable an accompaniment of beauty, that it has been taken for it. The most perfect form to answer an end, is so far beautiful. In the mind of the artist, could we enter there, we should see the sufficient reason for the last flourish and tendril of his work, just as every tint and spine in the seashell preexists in the secreting organs of the fish. We feel, in seeing a noble building, which rhymes well, as we do in hearing a perfect song, that it is spiritually organic, that is, had a necessity in nature, for being, was one of the possible forms in the Divine mind, and is now only discovered and executed by the artist, not arbitrarily composed by him.

This architectural theorist?  One Ralph Waldo Emerson.  From “Thoughts on Art,” The Dial, 1841.  There are moments in there that presage D’Arcy Thompson, Sullivan, and even Mies.  Astonishing, and I’ll totally steal that line about a “noble building, which rhymes well…”

spring lectures

youre-not-elected-charlie-brown-26Delighted to have a handful of talks to give in the next few months…hope to see a few ArchFarm regulars along the way…

24 March 2015–University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  5:30pm, Integrative Learning Center, Room S 211, Amherst, MA.  I’ll be talking about Nervi research.  Particularly looking forward to this, as the invitation comes from Rome colleague Max Page.  Max and I will be doing a “home and home” series, as he will be coming to Iowa State on March 30 and 31 to give the annual Benson Lecture in the Humanities here.

26 March 2015–Simpson College.  7:00pm, Kent Campus Center, Hubbell Hall 701 N C St, Indianola, I’ll be on a panel with photographer Kurt Ullrich and historian Chris Rasmussen to celebrate the opening of Ullrich’s exhibit of photographs of the Iowa State Fair.  No word yet on whether corn dogs or funnel cakes will be served.  (note–corrected date).

2 April, 2015–Structural Engineers Foundation of Illinois.  5:30-7:30pm.  University Center, 525 S. State Street, 2nd Floor, Chicago.  RSVP required.  Skyscrapers!

15-19 April, 2015–SAH Annual Meeting, Chicago.  Conference registration required.  I’m giving a paper as part of a session Friday morning on Chicago’s role in environmental technology.  I’ll go over some transitional research on light courts and how the need for daylighting and ventilation evolved between the wars.  Sort of a transition from the first book to some new research on postwar skyscrapers.

20 April, 2015–University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  5:30pm – Lawrence J. Plym Auditorium, Temple Hoyne Buell Hall.  Familiar haunts–glad to have the chance to lecture at my alma mater, and in my hometown.  Skyscrapers, and some long overdue catching up.  Thanks to the incomparable Marci Uihlein for arranging the invite…