Dec. 30, 2013 marked the 110th anniversary of the Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago—a conflagration that took 605 lives, mostly women and children, and forever changed the way we look at fire protection in public buildings.
Like the Titanic almost 10 years later, the Iroquois’s designers and builder touted the structure as modern, magnificent, and safe—advertised as “absolutely fireproof.” But municipal graft and corruption, and a rush to finish the job before the holiday season, resulted in a structure that was visually beautiful, but structurally and functionally unsound.
Nov. 23, 1903: Grand opening of the Iroquois Theater
Designed by architect Benjamin H. Marshall, commissioned by theater owners Harry J. Powers and William J. Davis, and built by the George H. Fuller Construction Co., Chicago's Iroquois Theater, at 24-28 W. Randolph St., was a six-story structure with seating for 1,724, an elaborate lobby, granite columns and decorative fixtures. The exterior was made of concrete and nonflammable materials and there were more than 30 exits. The New York Times called it "undoubtedly the safest theatre in Chicago."
Dec. 30, 1903, 2:15 p.m.
Actors seeking escape rushed to open a stage door, admitting cold air that further fueled the flames. Although there was a ventilation system above the stage designed to prevent fire by sucking flames and smoke away from the area, the units were inoperable because the bands used in transporting and installing them had never been removed.
Most of the actors, stagehands and patrons on the lower levels had escaped into the cold Chicago afternoon. People on the upper levels were not as fortunate.
Meanwhile, people who managed to exit through the fire escapes facing the theater's alleyway faced more problems. Ladders were frozen in the up postion and people began jumping down. Although some men leaped down to catch women and children as they jumped, as did firemen with nets who had arrived on the scene, many people trying to escape fell to their deaths. Soon the alleyway was littered with the dead.