Author(s): Edward Keegan. Published on May 1, 2009.

Out of the Ashes
McCormick Place, home to this year’s NFPA conference, is a very different—and safer—facility than the original version, which was destroyed by fire in 1967. A Chicago architect examines the legacy of the old McCormick, and how it shaped the creation of the new.

NFPA Journal®, May/June 2009

By Edward Keegan

Chicago has always been a place where commerce and building have been inextricably linked. Successful world’s fairs on the city’s Lake Michigan shorefront in 1893 and 1933–34 led Colonel Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, to relentlessly champion a permanent exhibition hall for commercial use to be located on the site of the second fair. His dream was realized when the original McCormick Place-by-the-Lake opened in 1960, at a cost of $40,000,000. "We were the birthplace for the exhibition hall phenomenon," says Jon Kaplan, director of Public Relations for the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority (MPEA), the governmental entity that owns and maintains lakeside convention facilities at both McCormick Place and nearby Navy Pier.



The aftermath of the 1967 fire that gutted the main exposition hall at McCormick Place. (Photo: Chicago Tribune)

The fire in progress, with smoke billowing from the roof.  Within hours of the fire, then-mayor Richard J. Daley was already taking steps to rebuild the facility. (Photo: Chicago Tribune)

The new McCormick complex. (Photo: Brian Gassel/tvsdesign)

Dramatic interior spaces are a hallmark of the new McCormick Place buildings.  Those stand in stark contrast to the original building, constructed in 1960, that was virtually windowless. (Photo: Brian Gassel/tvsdesign)

Just seven years later, though, the vast building met a well-known Chicago antagonist: fire. Within hours, McCormick Place—a building that had been touted by some as being "fireproof"—was reduced to smoldering wreckage. Even before the smoke cleared, however, city officials were vowing to rebuild McCormick Place bigger and better. Fire investigators, meanwhile, pursued the cause of the blaze, determined that such a fire would never happen again.

More than four decades after the destruction of the original McCormick Place, the new, rebuilt complex is considerably larger—and safer—than its predecessor. Every bit of the 2.6 million-square-foot (241,548-square-meter) complex, including its parking garages, is fully sprinklered, and the MPEA’s attention to code compliance is regarded as exemplary. According to Dan Cozzi, assistant director of Fire Safety for the MPEA, the construction practices used to create the new complex aren’t that different from those used to build the original; the primary difference, he says, is that the applicable fire and safety codes have undergone marked improvement since 1967. Best practices, he says, along with experience and vigilant code compliance (with a nod to McCormick Place’s unique history in fire prevention), help keep it safe today. "My goal here is to make sure everybody goes home at night," says Cozzi.

A "crown jewel" destroyed
Cozzi’s office includes photographs of the 1967 McCormick Place fire. Those images, Cozzi says, keep him focused on his job, which is to ensure the safety of the vast and ever-changing interior landscape of the new McCormick Place.

The original McCormick Place was completed in 1960 on a lakefront site south of Chicago’s Loop. When it opened, the main 320,000-square-foot (29,729-square-meter) exhibition hall was the largest in the United States. Designed by Chicago architect Alfred Shaw, the virtually windowless building had three levels of exhibit and support spaces with a 5,000-seat theater at the south end. The lower two levels were constructed of concrete. The top level, which contained the main exhibition space, was shielded from the elements by a series of long-span steel trusses, with 210 feet (64 meters) between columns and an 80-foot (24-meter) cantilever at each end. The underside of the primary structural members was 37 feet (11 meters) above the concrete slab floor. The columns were protected to a height of 20 feet (6 meters) by spray-applied fiber and encased in lath and gypsum vermiculite plaster. Despite the lack of any sprinklers or fire walls within the exhibition spaces, the building’s insurance carriers had estimated a maximum probable fire loss of less than 1 percent of the building’s value.

The fire occurred at 2 a.m. on January 16, 1967, the morning that the National Housewares Manufacturers Association show was to have opened. The exhibitions, arranged in 1,250 booths, had already been installed, and filled the upper two levels of the convention center with displays constructed of an array of combustible materials. Period reports describe displays made of wood, paper, fabric, and plastics, with many thousands of exhibited items of similar combustibility.

Investigators would later determine that the blaze began as an electrical fire in a single exhibit booth. Convention center janitors initially tried to extinguish the fire themselves, but within a half hour of the fire’s discovery, five alarms had been sounded, and more than 500 fire and rescue personnel raced to the scene—only to find that five of the seven McCormick Place fire hydrants were shut off, hampering the immediate firefighting efforts. The heat of the fire was so intense that the roof structure began to fail only an hour after the blaze began. With so much combustible material to fuel the fire, it took the Chicago Fire Department almost eight hours to extinguish it.

Mayor Richard J. Daley was incensed over the loss of McCormick Place and moved quickly on two fronts: to determine the cause of the fire and to replace the wreckage with a new McCormick Place. "The mayor was very upset when McCormick Place burned down," says Dick Evenson, senior vice-president for Marketing at Rolf Jensen & Associates (RJA) in Chicago. "This was his baby, a crown jewel on the lake, and he was appalled that something like this could happen."

Daley turned to Rolf Jensen, then head of the Fire Protection Engineering Department at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), to head a blue-ribbon panel that would investigate the cause of the McCormick Place fire. The IIT program Jensen led was itself a legacy of another seminal event in Chicago history, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, immortalized in recent years in Erik Larson’s history, The Devil in the White City. That world’s fair helped state Chicago’s case as a world-class city and introduced many modern marvels to the nation and to the world, including extensive electric exhibits in the Palace of Electricity. William Merrill, later a president of NFPA, started Underwriters Laboratories in response to the opportunities he saw at the fair, and in 1903, Merrill set up the Fire Protection Engineering Department at the then-Armour Institute of Technology to investigate and train generations of engineers in the principles of life and fire safety. Armour merged with another school to create IIT in 1940, and by the time Daley asked Jensen to undertake the McCormick investigation, the school’s fire protection program was rich in leading-edge information on fire and life safety.

The investigation report that Jensen and his panel produced became the basis for many of the fire protection and life safety codes used in Chicago, as well as in other major cities. Jensen’s subsequent consulting with a major architectural firm demonstrated that it was possible to combine code compliance with cutting-edge architectural design, an area for which Chicago was becoming increasingly known. Jensen left IIT in 1969 to found RJA, a consulting engineering firm specializing in fire protection and life safety.

Replacing McCormick Place didn’t take long. Local legend has it that Mayor Daley was on the phone to the Chicago architect Charles F. Murphy while Murphy could still see the smoldering ruins of McCormick Place from his offices atop the Railway Exchange Building. "Draw it up, Charlie," Daley told him. Murphy’s firm, C.F. Murphy Associates, immediately hired the architect Gene Summers and his young assistant, Helmut Jahn, to begin the new designs.

Construction began on the new hall in May 1968, and it was completed in early 1971. Now called the Lakeside Center, or East Building, as part of the much larger McCormick Place complex, the building’s evident structural gymnastics are actually less theatrical than the destroyed building’s—its 150-foot (46-meter) span and 75-foot (23-meter) cantilevers are smaller than those of the 1960 structure.

But the new building also included some 40,000 sprinklers. Experts would later determine that the designers of East Building were somewhat overzealous in their fire-protection efforts. "They have so many fire hose cabinets and pull stations throughout the East Building," says Cozzi of the MPEA. When the East Building was completed, it had four city tie boxes divided into zones. When the building was renovated in the 1990s, the retrofit allowed for only one city tie box for the entire building.

Vigilance, with an eye on history
Architect Jack Hartray, a partner in Nagle Hartray and one of Chicago’s best at combining technical wizardry and philosophical rumination, recalls that the old McCormick Place’s demise was more the result of misclassification than actual code blunder: the structure had been built under the assembly provisions of the code, as if it were a theater.

"In fairness, not many convention centers had been built then," says Hartray. "It was more of a warehouse, and one that sometimes stored very flammable items."

The former head of the Chicago Fire Prevention Bureau, Ed Prendergast, confirms this interpretation of an exhibition hall. "Depending on what convention I have in town, I have a room full of combustibles," he says. "It’s tinder."

Two years ago, at a Chicago Fire Academy forum, Prendergast talked about the 1967 fire on the occasion of its fortieth anniversary. The original designers made two colossal blunders, Prendergast said. They assumed that, in a fire-resistant building with a ceiling over 20 feet (6 meters) high, heat would dissipate by the time it reached the top of the room. They also assumed sprinklers at that height above a fire would be ineffective. "Water would evaporate before it could reach the fire, the way a light rain may evaporate before it reaches the sidewalk," said Prendergast of the designers’ reasoning. "They were doing what we engineers call ‘junk science.’"

Prendergast led the Chicago Fire Prevention Bureau from 1967 to 1998. A Chicagoan in the colorful individualist mold made famous by writers like Mike Royko and Studs Terkel, Prendergast seemed to generate stories wherever he went; it’s a rare Chicago architect or engineer from those decades who doesn’t have at least one choice Prendergast anecdote. Clark Fell was a young Chicago architect who worked on two local convention halls during the early 1990s: the Festival Hall at Navy Pier and McCormick Place’s South Building. Fell recalls being in a cab in Chicago with an associate from tvsdesign, an Atlanta-based design firm involved with the South Building project, heading to a meeting with Prendergast to review the building’s exiting strategies. "You’re going to hear at least several stories about the worst fires in Chicago history," Fell told his colleague. They arrived at Prendergast’s North Side office, unrolled their drawings, and waited for the review to begin.

As Fell tells it, Prendergast walked into the room, and his first question was, "Where are we going to line up the body bags?"

"The tvsdesign guy looked at me like, ‘I thought you were kidding!’" Fell recalls. But the meeting that followed was more than just a plan review, as Prendergast used stories of McCormick Place and the earlier Our Lady of the Angels School fire to instruct the young architects. That 1958 fire, in which 92 students and 3 nuns perished, was the impetus for the introduction of sprinklers in all Chicago schools with wood construction. "He was a mentor," says Fell. "He was teaching us kids that fire used to be worse than it is—but don’t underestimate it."

That kind of determined vigilance, along with an eye on history, resulted in a new McCormick Place that is far safer than the old. Every room in the complex is equipped with ionization smoke detectors, says Cozzi—and that’s a lot of rooms. Today’s McCormick Place totals 2.6 million square feet (241,548 square meters) of exhibition space, comprising four primary halls. In addition to the 300,000-square-foot (27,871-square-meter) East Hall, completed in 1971, the complex includes North Hall, with 369,000 square feet (34,281 square meters), completed in 1986; South Hall, with 840,000 square feet (78,039 square meters), completed in 1996; and West Hall, with 460,000 square feet (42,735 square meters), completed in 2007. More than 170 meeting rooms, totaling 600,000 square feet (55,742 square meters), supplement the exhibition halls, as do four ballrooms, including the two largest in Chicago.

Cozzi says that when the smoke detection system is activated, it enunciates in the building and alerts the local fire department. As an added measure of protection, exhibitors can use only fire-retardant construction materials for their displays, and may be required by McCormick Place to use additional detection and suppression equipment, depending on the displays’ specifications.

The MPEA has been the continuous owner and operator of the McCormick Place facilities since the construction of the 1960 hall. This institutional memory has helped the quasi-governmental entity to learn and improve best practices over time. When the South Hall was designed in the early 1990s, the roof structure, with 18-foot-deep (5-meter-deep) steel trusses, was placed 40 feet (12 meters) above the floor. The Chicago Building Code did not require fireproofing of these structural members, but the MPEA’s insurance carrier, still cognizant of the 1967 fire, did. "It was a tremendous cost," says Mike Hagen, head of the Chicago office of tvsdesign. "No other place in the country would require that in a similar condition." A decade later, when tvsdesign was planning the West Building, there was no requirement for fireproofing of the steel trusses, though the insurance carrier did ask for more stringent sprinkler coverage than was required by code.

Hagen, a Chicago native, has been intimately involved with McCormick Place for two decades. He was at the Chicago-based architectural firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill when it designed the North Building, and he was with the architecture/design firm of Epstein, where he was design director for the team overseeing the design/build of the South Building, Grand Concourse, and hotel. Since joining tvsdesign in 1999—tvsdesign had been part of Epstein’s team on the South Building—he’s headed the effort to complete the West Building, as well as the current work expanding the hotel.

The new vigilance that began with Rolf Jensen’s investigation of the original McCormick Place fire is paying off, says Hagen. "I don’t know of any fire that’s occurred" during the years he’s worked on McCormick Place projects, he says. He’s not even aware of a sprinkler that’s gone off due to a fire.

Edward Keegan, a Chicago architect and writer, is editor-at-large for ARCHITECT Magazine and an adjunct professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame.

Mr. Compliance
For Dan Cozzi and his staff, ensuring fire safety at the new McCormick Place is a 24/7 job.

Since 2000, Dan Cozzi has been assistant director of Fire Safety at the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority, which oversees the McCormick Place complex. He was a part-time fire safety officer at McCormick for half a dozen years before that, and he began his career as a Chicago firefighter. "We’re here because of the 1967 fire," Cozzi says of his 7 full-time and 17 part-time fire safety officers. "The Chicago Fire Department always wants to remind us, ‘You guys burned down on January 16, 1967.’"

Cozzi and his staff review every proposed exhibition installation—more than 100 every year—for compliance with the Chicago Building Code. Certificates for materials aren’t enough for approval. Samples are required, and the Fire Safety Division conducts its own tests for flame and smoke spread. The review continues long after drawings and materials are approved. "We’re here 24/7," says Cozzi. "We make inspections during installation."

"There was a lot of combustible and flammable material on the show floor in 1967," says Cozzi. "When the fire started in the middle, [all that available fuel] accelerated the fire."

The guidelines for exhibitors are very different today. An exhibitor may have a wall of WD-40 cans on display, but Cozzi and his staff make sure they’re empty. "They can have two aerosol cans that are full," Cozzi says. Electrical cords aren’t found within the booths, and any storage by exhibitors is located off the show floor.

Not all of these measures are different from what the 1967 codes required, but the level of compliance is. That’s not an easy task, in part because of the sheer size of the complex; to walk McCormick Place from north to south is about a half-mile journey, and from east to west it’s even longer. Cozzi says he maintains fire safety throughout the vast facility by strict attention to the code.

His trump cards, he says, are the photos of the 1967 fire that adorn his office walls. "When people ask if they can do something and I tell them no, I explain why," he says. "And I point to the pictures."

— Edward Keegan