Skip links

The Moment Of Change

I’ve been slowly working my way through the first volume of Building Progress, the semi-real magazine put out by the National Fireproofing Company to promote the building arts and, not accidentally, the use of architectural and structural terra cotta. The first volume covers 1911, and I guess the time to press for the magazine was just about a month, since there’s an editorial in the May issue on the topic of the Triangle Fire, which took place on March 25. The title of that editorial, “A Tragedy and its Lesson” actually understates the importance of the fire, but the piece is, in my opinion, perfectly on target. In short, Triangle was important to people other than those directly affected by the tragic consequences because it was the impetus for changing how fire safety was conceived. No one event can do that, but Triangle was either the last straw or the strongest bit of evidence (depending on your taste in clichés) in the process of change.

The history of fire-protection in the late 1800s in the US was a reaction to the losses of life and property in the Chicago fire of 1871 and the Boston fire of 1872. The push to create “fireproof” buildings over the next thirty or so years was specifically meant to prevent the kind of catastrophic damage to buildings observed in those fires. It also, somewhat by accident, helped popularize new structural technology that was used by various designers to create skyscrapers as a new class of building. (There is much, much more on this topic in The Structure of Skyscrapers.) As so often happens, when a large group of talented people focus on a technological goal, they reach it. By 1900, the standard form of “fireproof construction”, as defined in Building Progress and many other publications, was a success. Large buildings (of the new type) no longer burned down in fifteen minutes, and the spread of fire from one building to another (of the new type) was great reduced.

What did the editorial say about Triangle? First, that the design and construction of a building could only get you so far in terms of safety: “The architect’s and builder’s efforts must of necessity end with the completion of a building, and it is the way the structure is then used by the owner or tenant that determines its safety or danger for the occupants.” Second, that the structural fireproofing, of a reasonably standard design for 1900 (when the building was constructed) worked as intended: “After the fire the building, which was substantially of fireproof construction, was found intact. Withe the exception of the peeling of plaster, exposing the hollow tile beneath, the blackening of walls, floors and ceilings and the burning of wood trim, no damage was done to the building; it was only the inflammable contents that were destroyed.”

The problem with this position is that the contents that were destroyed included 146 people. And the editorial goes on to blame (and here I’ll translate to modern terminology) the lack of fireproof compartmentalization, the lack of direct and clear egress paths, and the unregulated storage of flammable materials. That is exactly right: those were the causes of the deaths.

In other words, Triangle showed that protecting the building was never enough. Safety, in any meaningful sense, also requires protecting people. And the history of the last 110 years of fire protection includes both topics, unlike the 40 years before.