By Stephan Benzkofer
February 5, 2012
The scope of the disaster was hard to fathom. Tribune reporters and photographers who raced to the scene that bitterly cold January night in 1967 sent word that McCormick Place was ablaze, engulfed in flames, raging — destroyed. Back at Tribune Tower, the night editor said, "It can't be."
But it was. The gleaming white convention center, which had opened in November 1960 and was the centerpiece of the city's dominant trade show business, was gone.
The building that was supposed to be fireproof and "outlast Rome's glories" was consumed frighteningly fast. Smoke was reported by janitors at 2:05 a.m. on Jan. 16. By 2:30 a.m., when Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn arrived, he upgraded it to a five-alarm fire. Eighteen minutes later, he ordered the first special alarm.
Firefighters wasted time trying to thaw four of seven hydrants before discovering they actually weren't frozen, they just weren't hooked up. Contractors building the interchange of the Stevenson Expressway and Lake Shore Drive had disconnected them. Firefighters drew water from the lake; the city's three fire boats also pumped water onto the fire. Later, Quinn said working hydrants wouldn't have made a difference: "That fire was out of control when the first units arrived."
It took just 45 minutes for two-thirds of the building to be engulfed. Before the fire was struck at 9:48 a.m., the roof had collapsed, though the Arie Crown Theater was damaged but not destroyed. About 2,000 firefighters using 65 percent of the city's fire equipment battled the blaze, the Tribune reported.
One person died in the fire, a 31-year-old security guard named Kenneth Goodman, whose burned body was found in the rubble.
For Chicago, this was not only a civic disaster but potentially an even worse economic one. McCormick Place had quickly become a money-maker. Convention business was worth as much as $300 million a year, the Tribune reported; McCormick Place accounted for a third of that and employed more than 10,000 people, according to state statistics.
Mayor Richard J. Daley immediately vowed to rebuild: "This is a tragic loss to the people of Chicago. But remember the Chicago fire of 1871. The people recovered from that one."
Daley wasn't alone in evoking the big one. A front-page editorial reminded readers what our great city had accomplished after that inferno. It closed, "In that faith, with courage equally high, let us unite and do what now must be done."
There was much to do. The huge housewares show, which was supposed to open that day, lay in ashes. Millions of dollars in booths, not to mention one-of-a-kind samples, were lost. The Tribune reported that would-be conventioneers milled about hotel lobbies, trying to understand what it all meant. Most booked early flights home, but some stayed for a hastily reconstructed show at the Palmer House after some manufacturers decided to tough it out.
Dozens of other shows scrambled to find new homes. The National Sporting Goods Show, which was just over two weeks away, moved to Navy Pier. The Chicago Auto Show, three weeks out, landed at the International Amphitheater.
An investigation report was released July 31, 1967, and assigned plenty of blame: poorly trained convention personnel and security guards, building construction unable to withstand the severity of the fire, serious deficiencies in temporary wiring, lack of automatic sprinklers, the disabled hydrants, and no limits to the amount of combustible material allowed in the hall. What fire probers couldn't determine was the cause. Though janitors said the initial smoke came from the vicinity of a booth's electrical wiring, the report said a search for the origin was inconclusive.
The same day, Gov. Otto Kerner gave final approval to a financing deal that guaranteed enough money for the convention hall to be replaced. By January 1971, a new McCormick Place had arisen. It was built on the old foundation and with a renovated Arie Crown Theater, but its dramatic roof marked it for a new, modern, muscular structure.
The new hall wasted no time welcoming back two big convention stalwarts. The housewares show attracted more than 58,000 industry buyers and conventioneers. They got to see lots of avocado-colored appliances and a new household necessity: the rug rake to care for the wildly popular shag carpets.
At the auto show, more than 350,000 people got to see a sleek new Italian sports car called a Lamborghini make its first local appearance. The 1971 price tag? $20,500.
Johnny on the spot
The Tribune's response to the fire was impressive. The blaze started shortly after 2 a.m. Monday but at least some editions of Monday's Tribune included a full story and photo, including the news that the fire was still blazing as of 5 a.m.
A silver lining?
The lakefront disaster meant the news of the Green Bay Packers winning what would become known as the Super Bowl — no Roman numerals needed, it was the first — was relegated to a secondary position on the front page. Bart Starr and Max McGee led the Pack over the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10.
What's in a name?
Longtime Tribune publisher Col. Robert McCormick, who fought long and hard for the exposition hall and its lakefront location, died before it opened.
Editor's note: Two people suggested this Flashback. Thanks to Jim Michie, of Palatine, and James Bjorkman, of Galesburg. Bjorkman remembers working on one of the transplanted sporting goods show exhibits at Navy Pier. "The conditions were very primitive, at best," he said last week. "A makeshift show, no frills. The primary objective ... was staying warm."
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