One Last Example

As I said yesterday, there is a very long list of historic fires that I could point to for discussion of their influence on design, so any list I put here is abbreviated and representative. The Rogers, Peet fire of 1898 is interesting not because it was unique but because it pointed to a future problem. The issue highlighted by this fire had not been very important before the 1870s but it has become steadily more important since then.

The photo above, from the early 1900s, does not show the Rogers, Peet building because it was completely destroyed in the fire. The building on the left with the very steep hip roof is the Home Insurance Building (the NYC building, not the more famous Chicago one); the building immediately to its left is the Postal Telegraph Building. Both were among New York’s earliest skyscrapers and both are still around and landmarked. The lower building immediately to the right of Home Insurance was built on the site of the Rogers, Peet store. The old store was several connected mid-1800s buildings, with masonry exterior walls, masonry party walls, and wood joist floors. The Home Insurance and Postal Telegraph buildings next door were, by contrast, “fireproof” high-rises with the newest technology. In the 1890s and early 1900s, people briefly believed that they had solved the problem of fire, at least in new buildings, throughout the use of the new construction technology; the Triangle fire definitively proved that this was a mistake, and that egress was as important, if not more important, than structural fireproofing.

In short, the intense fire in the old store caused secondary fires in the high-rise next door. Anyone who’s ever watched a fire knows that heat rises but this wasn’t necessarily dangerous in cities of the mid-1800s and earlier, because there were few tall structures. Other than church spires and a handful of working towers of various types, buildings used to top out at five or six stories, or in a few exceptional cases eight or nine. New York prior to 1870 had a fairly consistent roof plane at a maximum of 60 to 80 feet above grade, with only those few spires and towers going higher. Once people started building real high-rises in the 1870s and 80s, the possibility of secondary fire from adjacent low-rises became real. The fires in Home Insurance were contained and extinguished, and the damage repaired. But the example has haunted designers and fire-fighters ever since.

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