Chicagoland Architecture Substack Blog by Rachel Freundt: The Great Chicago Fire

“On Sunday evening October 8th 1871 a fire broke out in a barn owned by the O’Leary family on DeKoven Street that spread a little over three miles across Chicago, ultimately destroying 17,450 buildings, killing around 300 people, and leaving more than 100,000 residents homeless. It would rage for 30 hours leaving the city center in ruins before finally flaming out at Fullerton Avenue, then the northernmost edge of Chicago.

“At the time Lakeview was its own town while Lincoln Park and Old Town were much smaller communities, full of farms and dairies owned by German immigrants. With the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, I thought I’d look at the handful of ‘pre-fire’ buildings that survived this terrible event as well as some that were constructed in the immediate aftermath near the city’s then northern limits.

“The most famous residence to survive the fire is the Richard Bellinger Cottage, a late 1860s Italianate that stands at 2121 N. Hudson. Designed by W.W. Boyington, the architect of the city’s water tower (the only public building left untouched in the burned zone ), it cost $500 to construct the home (or $16,500 with inflation). Both employed as policemen, Bellinger and his brother-in-law wetted down the home and its roof with water and cider taken from the cellar, covering the building with soaked rugs and blankets. He also cleared all the dry leaves on the property, then he tore up the wooden sidewalk and picket fence so the fire wouldn’t spread. It worked! Everything around his little cottage burned to ground.

“The Chicago Tribune reported a few days later that ‘a small white cottage…remains unscathed in the midst of the dreary waste surrounding it.’ Exactly a hundred years later, the then owner, a woman named Mrs. Albert A. Liebrich remarked that she ‘couldn’t care less about its history. It may be history to you, but to me it’s a place I’ve paid for.’ Fortunately six years later the home was designated a landmark by the Chicago Landmarks Commission.

“The Bellinger House might have been the only building left standing after the fire died out in Lincoln Park but there were other survivors nearby that narrowly escaped like the ‘twin’ houses at 2343 and 2339 N. Cleveland, which were built around 1866. The burnt district ended at Clark and Fullerton, just around the block, so these buildings were not in the direct path of the fire. But it’s amazing to see them still standing 155 years later in an area where a lot of new construction takes place.

Read the full story with many photos at Chicagoland Architecture Substack Blog

The Great Chicago Fire, Rachel Freundt, Chicagoland Architecture Substack Blog


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