When the “red demon” swept across the city, destroying almost 18,000 buildings, some writers of the day said it was a reminder of human folly and of God’s might.
The fire destroyed almost everything in its path. But at least four structures are known to have survived. Divine intervention? A determined effort to save a cherished building? Location?
Or possibly just good fortune.
“The fire was so intense and so hot that nothing could really resist being burned. Nothing was safe. … The reason that these [buildings] didn’t burn is largely luck,” said Carl Smith, a professor emeritus of English and history at Northwestern University and author of 2020’s “Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City.”
One of the buildings that remained among the smoking ruins of the city was considered “fireproof,” but so were several that burned to the ground, Smith said. At least two other buildings that didn’t go up in flames were doused in water or covered in wet rugs by their owners — but that was a scene that played out across the city and almost always failed, Smith said.
“To this day, there is no such thing as a fireproof building; if it’s just hot enough, it will burn,” Smith said. “The twin towers are an example of that. The [Chicago] fire was so hot that it turned stone to powder, it bent metal, it melted glass.”
Unquestionably, the best known of the survivors — and one of only two that can still be seen today — is the Water Tower on Michigan Avenue. Made from solid limestone blocks, it was built to house a 138-foot-tall standpipe, used to relieve water pressure from the nearby pumping station, according to a Commission on Chicago Historical & Architectural Landmarks report from 1984. The tower was designed by noted architect William Boyington in a Gothic revival style.
During the fire, it perhaps helped that the tower was tall, skinny and stood alone. The pumping station, built in the same style, had a wooden roof that collapsed. The machinery inside was so badly damaged that the city’s water supply was virtually cut off for eight days, according to the commission report.
Detractors included writer Oscar Wilde who called the tower a “castellated monstrosity,” referring to the faux battlements, during a visit to the city in 1882. It’s been described as an “absolutely ghastly” building.
But Chicagoans have always loved the quirky little tower, even though the standpipe no longer functions. It’s been seen as a symbol of the city’s resilience.
It also survived at least two efforts to have it demolished — in 1906 and again in 1918, according to city records, the latter to make way for a widened Michigan Avenue; that’s why there’s a slight bend in the city’s best-known street as it passes the tower. In October 1971, almost exactly 100 years after the fire, the City Council made it an official landmark.
One downtown commercial building in the fire’s path, long since demolished, also survived the blaze: The Nixon Block, near the northeast corner of Monroe and LaSalle streets.
“Some of its woodwork was damaged, but the building-in-progress was largely unharmed. The extent to which its survival is attributable to a twist of fate or to its ‘fireproof’ construction of iron, brick, marble, concrete, and plaster of Paris is hard to determine,” according to greatchicagofire.org.
Two homes survived; one was on the site of the current Newberry Library. It belonged to Mahlon Ogden, a prosperous lawyer, judge and brother to the city’s first mayor, William Ogden.
“Servants … covered it with rugs and wet down the rugs; that probably helped,” Smith said.
A tiny patch of greenery might also have helped.
“The park in front, a mere square, had been devoted to the city and Mr. Ogden many years ago; and it proved a valuable breastwork against the fire on this occasion, as if in acknowledgment of the wisdom and generosity of the gift and as a hint to other landlords to do likewise,” according to The Great Conflagration.
The other home, which survives today, sits in Lincoln Park at 2121 N. Hudson Ave. and was owned at the time by a Chicago police officer and his family. It was saved, according to the Great Conflagration, by “dint of much exertion” and a “favorable freak of the flames.”
As the fire approached, the officer, Richard Bellinger, tore up the wooden sidewalk in front of his home; he doused the building with water but eventually ran out.
“He stood his ground manfully, until the red demon approached threateningly near, and then he redoubled his efforts,” according to the book.
When the water ran out, he went to his cellar to retrieve a barrel of cider — or so the story goes.
“He rightly judged that the red guest who now threatened his house with a visit wanted the cider worse than he did. … The libation was poured out [in the right spots] and the home was saved.”
The home’s current owner, Brayton Gray, is a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He and his wife divide their time between Chicago and the south of France. The couple have owned the house since about 2005.
Most Saturdays, a tour group shows up in front of his home. The group stops and a guide gives a talk.
“I have no idea what he says,” Gray said with a chuckle. “I don’t go out and listen to him.”
Gray said he and his wife have made improvements to the house but not to the façade, which is protected by landmark status. He said the place is too big now that his children are grown and no longer live there. The couple is planning to put it on the market in the spring. When he bought it back in 2005, the asking price was about $1.5 million.