Monday, December 4, 2017

December 4, 1977 -- Dr. Edith Brooks Farnsworth Dies

December 4, 1977 – Dr. Edith Brooks Farnsworth, aged 71, dies at her villa near Florence, Italy, a long distance from Passavant Memorial Hospital in Chicago where she spent 27 years on the staff.  Farnsworth, of course, was the client who commissioned Mies van der Rohe to design a house for her in Kendall County on land which she had purchased from Colonel Robert McCormick, the editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune.  Recognized throughout the world today as a gem of mid-century modern residential architecture, the project, finished in 1959, led to years of legal wrangling between Farnsworth and her architect.  Farnsworth was a graduate of the University of Chicago, from which she graduated with a degree in literature, going on to get a degree in medicine in 1939 from the Northwestern University Medical School. Farnsworth’s ashes were returned to Chicago, and she is buried at Graceland Cemetery, where her headstone is within sight of the grave of Mies van der Rohe. For more on the legal battle that raged between the two from 1951 to 1956, you can turn to this entry in Connecting the Windy City.  Information on the resolution of the suit can be found here.

December 4, 1902 – Fourteen men lose their lives in a fire at the Lincoln Hotel at 176 Madison Street, a converted business block that the city’s fire marshal calls the worst firetrap he has seen.  The building went up in 1873, just two years after the Great Fire, and despite its proximity to that tragic event, it was built with wooden partitions, a single wooden staircase, and windows less than a foot in width.  Six months before the fire two electric elevators were installed as the building was being converted into a hotel.  The shafts of those elevators, enclosed within wooden casings, formed flues that provided a draft for the fire once it began.  One of the newly installed elevators blocked all but 20 inches of the main stairway, stairs that should have been over twice as wide.  There was only one fire escape in the four-story building, and that was reached by way of a partitioned six-foot by eight-foot hotel room that contained two beds.  When the lights went out and the elevators failed early on in the catastrophe the residents found themselves in darkness and smoke, some with no way to escape.  The night clerk discovered the fire at 5:40 a.m. and alerted as many guests as he could.  125 people began frantically trying to find a way out of the burning building, some by jumping out of narrow windows to the roofs of lower business buildings to the east and west.  Firefighters initially could not make their way up the one stairway and were forced to fight the fire and try to save those trapped in the building by placing ladders against the west side of the building.   Following the tragedy was a condemnation of the city’s inspection process with a special focus placed on Chief Building Inspector Kiolbassa, of whom Fireproof Magazine said, “At his door lies the record of more torture and death brought to suffering, helplessness, as the direct result of his incompetency, than has ever before been charged to a public officer in the history of civic government.”  [Fireproof Magazine, Volume 1; No. 5., p. 45.]

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