Fire Prevention Week and Frank Lloyd Wright

Learning from Disasters

Later model of Frank Lloyd Wright's fireproof house
Frank Lloyd Wright's fireproof Emil Bach House, c. 1915, Chicago, Illinois. Photo by User:JeremyA (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], ©2006 Jeremy Atherton, via Wikimedia Commons

Why is Fire Prevention Week in October? The Great Chicago Fire destroyed an American city in October 1871—an event that not only changed the lives of many people, but also changed the way we design and build structures. For seven days every October, the US commemorates Fire Prevention Week not as a celebration, but as a recalibration—a reassessment of better ways to build a safer building.

Fire has been a problem since American colonial times.

Early settlements like St. Augustine, Florida have a difficult time documenting local history because their buildings kept burning up or blowing away. As the colonists built a nation of "united states," rebuilding was the accepted practice when disaster struck. This trend began to change as the US moved from an agrarian to an industrial society after the American Civil War. Stronger, sturdier, even fire-resistant buildings could be built with the new construction materials and methods of the late 19th century. Throughout the years, if there's one thing we've learned, it's that there's always room for improvement.

So how does America's most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) fit into this story? Wright would have been four-years-old the day most of Chicago burned down on October 9, 1871. The impact of the fire must have had lasting memories for the child of Wisconsin. Wright was, no doubt, influenced even more in 1887 as a young architecture apprentice in Chicago.

After the Fire:

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 changed the way we think about architecture and construction. Wood construction was so colonial, the old-fashioned 17th and 18th century way of cutting down the trees around you to build a new country. The 19th century was all about the Industrial Revolution and modernism.Timber framed storefronts would not stand up to the sparks of urban industrialization.

And, so, after Chicago burned down, the city was rebuilt with more fire-resistant structures. The architects of the day, now known as the Chicago School, created new methods and new designs.  Steel-framed skyscrapers like the Home Insurance Building were born from Chicago's disaster. Concrete and steel replaced incendiary timbers.

The future designs of a young Frank Lloyd Wright, an assistant to famed Chicago School architect Louis Sullivan, were influenced by this urban disaster.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fire-Resistant Concrete:

Wright began using concrete to build structures much smaller than the tall buildings going up in the city. His most famous work may be the Oak Park Unity Temple (1905-1908). The maverick architect also began using concrete for home building.

The 1915 Emil Bach House, shown here in suburban Chicago, takes its general design from Frank Lloyd Wright's Plan for a Fireproof House, a 1907 feature the architect wrote for The Ladies' Home Journal. The article, in a very popular magazine, sets out a model for residential fire resistant design as modern as the new technologies being used in the tall buildings of Chicago and New York.

The Bach House is a later model of the fireproof home.

Emil Bach was part owner of a brick company, so the house is not of concrete, but of fireproof brick. It is considered a "modification" because it was built at a time when Wright was designing "un-box-like" homes. "Organic architecture has already declared war upon the box," Wright wrote in 1936. "The old type of dwelling, Colonial or any other period, is not fit for the new machinery...The old house must be thrown away entirely...."

Learn More:

Sources: Frank Lloyd Wright On Architecture: Selected Writings (1894-1940), Frederick Gutheim, ed., Grosset's Universal Library, 1941, p. 208; Historical American Buildings Survey, HABS No. ILL-1088, National Park Service, 1966 (PDF) [accessed October 1, 2015]

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Craven, Jackie. "Fire Prevention Week and Frank Lloyd Wright." ThoughtCo, Oct. 9, 2016, Craven, Jackie. (2016, October 9). Fire Prevention Week and Frank Lloyd Wright. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Fire Prevention Week and Frank Lloyd Wright." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 14, 2017).