A Visit to the Chicago Fire Department Academy

The Chicago Fire Department Academy building pays homage to the urban legend of Mrs. O’Leary and her infamous cow. It’s actually located on the spot where the fire took place. We all know now that the cow was not to blame. Although, I believe, some still harbor that tale. It’s ironic that CFD built on that very spot, but it does make a point about Chicago. Although the city burnt due to the drought conditions, the fact that the city was virtually made of wood, and the winds that carried the sparks north and east, Chicago always bounces back from calamity and hardship.

Designed by city architect, Paul Gerhardt, Jr., the Fire Academy is modern and quite striking. According to Morning Shift staff writer from October 4, 2017, “the building is a five-story cube of bright orange brick, with a line of clerestory windows along the top of the fire-training wing. Inside those brick walls is an artificial streetscape of fire escapes, windows, and chimneys that are used for mock firefighting exercises.” I had to look up clerestory, a term for windows designed to admit light and fresh air, historically named for the type of windows above eye level, as in a Roman basilica or classic church.

What’s most impressive about the Fire Academy is the stories that highlight the most severe and devastating fires in Chicago history since the 1871 conflagration. These include the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903 that claimed more than 600 lives when it was all said and done. That fire was due to faulty wiring in what was thought to be a fireproof building at 24-28 W. Randolph Street, where the Oriental Theater is currently located.

Another tragic fire was the December 1, 1958 fire that devastated Our Lady of Angels School on Chicago’s West Side where 92 school children and two nuns died. The fire started in the basement in a trash can and quickly spread. As with the Great Chicago Fire, the firemen went to the wrong place before finding the fire inside the school itself. Because of this tragedy many new fire regulations have been put into place possibly saving many lives since.

Other tragedies are documented that claimed the lives of firefighters and challenged the resources of our city, including the LaSalle Bank fire of 1946, and the Great Chicago Flood of 1992 where 124 million gallons of water from the Chicago River poured into the freight tunnel beneath the loop buildings.

Chicago Tribune Great flood of 1992

The Fire Academy honors the firefighters with plaques and medals that show their bravery and devotion to the safety of our citizens. This is definitely worth a visit and if a trainer is available you can request a tour.

Bernard Turner

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