Gallery Fire 

"Hey, Scott, come over here! There's a building on fire! You can still see flames."

Well-dressed woman to friends: "Oh, God. Everyone in the neighborhood's gonna have to get new upholstery."

The weekend crowd milled around the site of the fire—the block bounded by Superior, Huron, Orleans, and Sedgwick—staring at the smoldering ruins of the six-story walls of brick, which two days before had been the cornerstone of the River North gallery district. The devastation was complete. Everyone made the same analogy; the building looked like something out of World War II—the London blitz or the Dresden firebombing.

Nothing remained of the galleries—no artwork, no furniture, not a single line of track lighting. The thick wood beams had been burned away; the polished wood floors had all collapsed. Only the bricks were left—piles and piles and piles of bricks that completely covered Superior and Huron.

We drove by to have a look. We watched the snorkel trucks still pouring water in the buildings, and wandered around among the other voyeurs, eavesdropping on their conversations.

Cop in squad car shouting over loudspeaker at a couple running toward building: "All right, let's get back! Let's get back!" They stop, and the man points, "But I've got four pieces in there!"

Fireman: "I've been up for 42 hours straight. Most of the guys here came straight from the fire at 24th and Archer. The running joke is that the chief is resigning in two weeks, and this is his way of going out with something big—two big fires back to back."

"Oh God, look at that! Do you see that!"

"Yes!"

"It's still burning! Good God! Eighteen hours and it's still burning."

"Why aren't they spraying water on that?"

"I was out driving around in my car and I had the radio on an AM station. My car only has AM. It was on WBBM and the news came on and they were talking about this big fire in River North. It sounded pretty bad. When I got home we called up David and told him about the fire. You know his work is at Zolla-Lieberman. 'You're joking,' he said. And then Tom said, 'Marcia never jokes.' So David went over to see for himself. He was devastated. He has no new work now."

"Was anyone hurt?"

Paramedic: "No." Pause. "Well. Two firemen."

"So no one was hurt."

Paramedic: "Two firemen were hurt."

Artist: "I had four pieces in there."

"Really? Whew!"

"How much were they worth?"

Artist: "Four thousand dollars. Each one was worth four thousand dollars."

"Whew!"

"Were they insured?"

Artist: "I'm sure the gallery's insured. But I'll bet the owners will be slow to pay the artists. They were really strapped financially."

A guard standing outside the Wesley-Jessen building at Superior and Sedgwick Sunday afternoon: "I can't believe all these people are taking pictures of a burned-out building."

Fireman: "Do you have a motor drive on that thing?"

"No, this is a cheap camera."

Fireman: "Go over to the northwest corner. They're still pouring water on it, and the wall should fall down any minute. With a motor drive you can catch the bricks falling."

"When did the fire start?"

Paramedic: "The call came in at six, six-thirty, and by eight this place was falling apart."

"I was going to take a brick home as a souvenir, but it fell apart in my hands. I picked it up and a corner fell off. I like took a step and another chunk fell off. Another step and the brick completely fell apart."

Fireman: "The fire started in the northeast corner on the top floor. It spread that way [he points west], that way [he points south], and straight down. It's really unusual for a fire to go straight down."

Paramedic: "See how that building's leaning?" He points at the Green Door Tavern. "It's going to have to be torn down."

"It's a total loss?"

"A total loss. The corner [of the burning building] collapsed and fell on it. The owner was literally on the phone with his insurance company saying, 'I have a burning building next door—am I covered for this?' when it happened. That's when the firemen were injured."

Sunday afternoon we asked a guard if we could take a photograph from the roof of a neighboring building. "I'll take you to where the Trib and Sun-Times photographers took their pictures when the fire was really blazing," he said. We went up in the freight elevator and out onto the roof. He pointed to a spot near the top of the building across the street and said, "See that flame? The firemen can't see that that's burning from where they are—because they're beneath it."

Mother taking a picture of her kid in front of the rubble on Huron on Sunday: "Ask that fireman to turn around!"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Sheila Sachs, Timothy D. Lace.

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