Thursday, December 11, 2014

Fire damages Chicago Firehouse Restaurant

Chicago Tribune photo

Fire tore through the landmark structure housing the Chicago Firehouse Restaurant at 1401 S. Michigan Avenue in the South Loop on Wednesday December 10, 2014.  The fire began accidentally about 10:20am by workmen making repairs to the roof.  It quickly spread and the roof eventually caved in.  Everyone was safely evacuated from the building.

Exterior in 1912

The structure was built in 1905-1906 to house Engine Company 104 of the Chicago Fire Department.  Architect Charles F. Hermann designed the distinctive structure in the Romanesque Revival style, utilizing yellow brick and limestone in its construction.   Two bays facing Michigan Avenue accommodated the horse-drawn equipment, and the large second floor provided living quarters for the firefighters on duty.   

Interior circa 1948

The back portion of the second floor was used as a hayloft for the horses.  After motorized equipment was introduced, that space was converted to a handball court.  Portions of the 1991 movie Backdraft, directed by Ron Howard, were filmed in the structure.

The fire house operated until 1999 when the property was sold to investor Matthew O’Malley, who opened the restaurant the following year.  Careful attention was paid to preserving many of the original details of the building.  The restaurant interior retained the tin ceiling, glazed brick walls, and two brass fire poles.  The metal spiral staircase up to the living quarters was removed and reinstalled in the new courtyard, created from the space formerly occupied by the horse stables.  

Simmerling paintings being removed from the building

The sense of history was enhanced by artist Jack Simmerling who created several large watercolor paintings to decorate the dining room.  These included scenes of nearby Prairie Avenue, as well as the Potter Palmer “castle” and the Cyrus McCormick mansion on the city’s north side. 

On October 1, 2003, the building was designated a Chicago Landmark.  The plaque installed on the front of the building reads:

“The design of this firehouse incorporated many innovations aimed at achieving quick departures and providing more comfortable quarters for firefighters.  Its Romanesque Revival-style details also make it one of the more distinctive and handsome firehouses in the City.  Through their history and architecture, Chicago’s historic firehouses show how ideas about fire protection and the firehouse itself evolved over time.”

After the fire had been extinguished

The restaurant was a favorite of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, who lived nearby on Indiana Avenue.  In July 2006, he hosted a dinner for then President George W. Bush, who celebrated his 60th birthday in the private banquet room on the second floor.  

The owners announced almost immediately their intentions to rebuild and reopen as soon as possible.

NOTE:  Historic images from "History of Chicago Fire Houses of the 20th Century 1901-1925" by Ken Little and John McNalis, published in 2000.

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