WBEZ Chicago Curious City: These Buildings Made It Through The Fire But Didn’t Survive Chicago’s Development

“The Great Chicago Fire, which lasted from October 8-10, 1871, destroyed most of Chicago from what is today Roosevelt Road to Fullerton Avenue and from Lake Michigan to the Chicago River. Almost 100,000 Chicagoans lost their homes and several hundred lost their lives during the three days the fire burned.

“The water works may have failed to function in the middle of the fire, but when the last of the embers cooled, that stone tower stood tall amid the ruin, proving a point around which all the city could rally and rebuild.

“But the Water Tower was not the sole survivor of the fire. The Mahlon D. Ogden House, the Lind Block and the Relic House each tell a piece of Chicago’s history. And while these structures ‘survived’ the fire, they were all torn down in the decades that followed as the city grew, neighborhoods gentrified and developers came knocking.

“The Mahlon D. Ogden House – By 1871 Mahlon Ogden was living with his second wife and three children in a two-story mansion just north of the fashionable Washington Square Park, which still exists today, at Clark and Walton Streets on the Near North Side. When the fire struck on October 8th, 1871, Ogden and his family weren’t home. Their house was saved thanks to the efforts of some guests staying there and, presumably, the family’s servants.

“The open space of Washington Square Park slowed the fire’s advance while those inside took everything made of cloth — curtains, carpets, blankets and sheets — and soaked them in well water and cider in the cellar. Then they wrapped the outside of the house like a mummy and waited out the flames.

“When the fire had passed and eventually was extinguished by the rain that fell on October 9th, Washington Square Park lay in ruins. Its majestic elm trees had been reduced to ash and its elegant iron fencing had melted into large, tangled lumps. But the Ogden house stood unscathed. As the Chicago Tribune reported, ‘The house of Mr. Mahlon D. Ogden, on Dearborn street and Lafayette place, was not even scorched.’

“More than two decades later, readers of the Chicago Tribune opened up the October 9, 1893 edition and were gifted with a full-color illustration of the Ogden house. The accompanying text proclaimed, ‘as the sole survivor on the north side it will always be famous.’

“This was the year of the World’s Columbian Exposition and October 9th was Chicago Day at the World’s Fair. The special ticket for that day included an illustration of the mythical Phoenix rising from the flames — for that was how Chicago saw itself 22 years after the fire, a city reborn.

“But Chicagoans wouldn’t have been able to see the Mahlon D. Ogden house on that day. Soon after the fire, Ogden suffered financial troubles and the trustees of the Walter Loomis Newberry estate saw an opportunity to snatch up some valuable land. They tore down the mansion and erected, as a Tribune article from October 9, 1893 put it, the ‘magnificent new Newberry Library Building’

“There were no protests when the house came down. The public’s ideas about what was important and worth saving were different back then, and as the article went on to say, ‘in Chicago all things change.’

“The Lind Block – The Lind Block took its name from Sylvester Lind, the man who built it in the early 1850s. Lind owned a lumberyard on the site and continued to use the area for that purpose after building the five-story commercial building. He also owned a fleet of boats. But it’s been reported that Lind didn’t just use his boats for transporting lumber around the Great Lakes.

“He was a staunch abolitionist and a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Escaped enslaved people would board one of his boats on the docks near the Lind Block and then sail from Chicago to freedom in Canada. As one of the only commercial buildings left standing after the fire, the Lind Block soon became a place of refuge. For three days, Hall gave away what had been in his grocery to fellow Chicagoans made homeless and destitute because of the fire.

“A connection to the Great Fire and the Underground Railroad should have made a good case for giving the Lind Block landmark status. Instead, it was torn down to make room for developers coming in to build new construction in the Loop.

“In a January 1963 column titled ‘Oldest Building in Loop Succumbs to Progress,’ the Tribune’s Will Leonard lamented the loss of such an important historic building, writing, ‘snow of 111 winters had melted on the [Lind Block’s] roof, the sunshine of 110 summers warmed its wall. A few years ago, an officer of the engineering firm that owned the oldest building in downtown Chicago said proudly: ‘It’ll be here another 100 years.’ Today they are tearing it down.’ (Durica, WBEZ Chicago, 10/7/21)

“Paul Durica is the director of exhibitions at the Newberry Library.

Read and hear the full story with photos at Curious City at WBEZ Chicago

These buildings made it through the fire but didn’t survive Chicago’s development; A mansion, a bohemian club and a commercial building in the Loop all survived the Great Chicago Fire, but were ultimately torn down, Paul Durica, Curious City on WBEZ Chicago, 10/7/21


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