December 30, 1903 – Chicago, IL, USA
The worst and most deadly single building fire in American history and one of the worst single building fires in world history was that of the Iroquois Theatre Fire.
The Iroquois Theatre, located on Randolph Street between State Street and Dearborn Avenue in downtown Chicago, was one of the most opulent and modern theatres in the world. The magnificent theatre, built for over $1 million, was designed by architect Benjamin H. Marshall and was patterned after the famous Opera Comiquein Paris.
No expense was spared in the construction and furnishing of the Iroquois Theatre. The theatre’s façade was a six story, French style design with polished granite and Bedford stone. Huge twin Corinthian columns, each weighing thirty-two tons, supported an entrance that was composed of ten glass doors. On top of the massive columns were ornately designed figures of the classic icons Comedy and Tragedy. The entire edifice was crowned with a large carved stone bust of the theatre’s namesake Native American.
The theatre’s interior was opulently designed and furnished. Ornate chandeliers and illuminated globes designed in the Beaux Arts style lighted arched staircases bordered with filigree wrought iron balustrades which led up to the upper tiers and box seats. The grand promenade was covered by a gold painted fifty three foot high ceiling supported by ten columns of pavanazzo marble patterned from the L’Opera Comiquetheatre of Paris and the U.S. Library of Congress building.
Walls were covered with gleaming mirrors and richly painted wall panels. Endless yards of red and green plush velvet drapery enhanced the overall look of elegance. Seats were also covered with plush velvet as were the settees found in the promenade and floor landings.
In addition to traditional opulent designs, the theatre was a first rate example of modern technology. Seating was scientifically arranged so that everyone in the audience had clear views of the 60 foot wide, 110 foot deep stage. The theatre boasted of having over 2,000 new Edison Mazda light bulbs throughout the grand foyer and around the 6,300 foot auditorium.
The Grandest Theatre in the World
The Iroquois Theatre was advertised as not only the grandest theatre in the country if not the world, but also the most modern and fully fireproof. However, although laws required the theatre to have a fire prevention sprinkler system, in their haste to build and open the theatre quickly, the builders did not install one or provide basic firefighting equipment. Moreover, exit and direction signs had not yet been installed and exit doorways were covered with drapery making them virtually invisible. Also, many doors were locked to prevent unpaid intruders from sneaking into the theatre or the reserved seating area. Additionally, there were no back stage phone systems, fire alarm boxes or real asbestos curtains. It is believed that city fire inspectors were bribed to certify that the theatre met proper fire codes.
The Iroquois Theatre Fire History
The Iroquois Theatre was open only five weeks when a special Christmas week matinee performance was held on Wednesday, December 30, 1903. Chicago’s weather that day was clear and cold. However, the cold did not prevent an excited holiday crowd from traveling from over 13 states to attend the performance of the hit comedy Mr. Bluebeard. One of America’s most famous song and dance performers, Eddie Foy, was the featured star.
Although the theatre was designed to accommodate fewer than 1,700 people; more than 2,000 people, many of them women and children, squeezed into the standing room only show. During the second act, a back stage arc light exploded setting off a small fire on a curtain. With over 300 curtains in the stage area, the fire spread quickly. Stage hands, actors and actresses scrambled to leave the burning area through doors in back of the stage area. The rush of 8 degree cold air sucked through the open doors created severe fireballs that further spread the fire towards the opposite end of the theatre, engulfing the seating and lobby areas.
The audience frantically looked for exits but could not immediately find them as the doorways were covered with curtains and directions signs were not installed. Moreover, thick black smoke quickly spread throughout the building and reduced visibility to near total darkness. Of the exit doorways that were located, many were locked. Doors that were unlocked were inward opening doors, preventing escape as panicked audience members crushed each other against the doors preventing their opening.
In less than an hour more than 600 people perished. Officially 602 people died but many believe more were lost in the fire. Many people were burned alive and trampled but most died sitting in their seats, overcome by the heavy, thick smoke. Victims were asphyxiated, burned and trampled to death. Bodies were found throughout the theatre, many unrecognizable and many twisted in horrific black shapes.
Chicago firefighters put the huge fire out in 30 minutes but they could not prevent the huge death toll, twice higher than the city wide Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The Iroquois Theatre Fire is the worst theatre and single building fire in American history.
Headlines carried news of the disaster throughout the world. The Iroquois Theatrefire disaster created huge public outcry and demands for improved fire inspection, enforcement and prevention policies. All theatres in Chicago and across the country were immediately closed for inspections. Fire prevention reforms were quickly implemented throughout the country and the world.
New laws were introduced to better govern fire inspection and prevention policies for theatres and large buildings. Strict building code inspection, enforcement and insurance standards were implemented. Major reform policies implemented included features that are commonplace today: outward opening exit doors with “panic bar” door handles, lighted EXIT signs and fire resistant curtain, scenery and seating material.
Fire prevention reforms implemented as a result of the Iroquois Theatre Fire have dramatically reduced deadly theatre and building fire deaths worldwide.