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The Great Gallery Fire

Within just a few hours, a colossal blaze decimated a thriving mecca for the Chicago fine arts community.


To most Chicago residents, a reference to "the fire" draws imagery of the conflagration of 1871, of the Water Tower, of Mrs. O'Leary's cow. A mention of "the fire" in Chicago's gallery district, however, will likely give you quite a different reaction.

"I have a very pivotal point for timing things," says William Lieberman, owner of Zolla/Lieberman Gallery. "I say pre-fire or post-fire."

That pivotal point was the early morning of April 15, 1989, when a fire broke out in the old Brunswick Balke-Collender factory complex, which constituted the full block of Superior, Orleans, Huron and Sedgwick. Within just a few hours, a colossal blaze had decimated the building, which had in the '80s become a thriving mecca for the Chicago fine arts community. At the time of the fire, nine galleries occupied the first two floors of the immense six-story structure, which was undergoing renovation.

No one was killed or seriously injured in the fire, but everything inside the building was completely destroyed. Although no proper estimate could ever be given, it was said then that $50 million worth of art went up in smoke, making it one of the greatest art losses ever. With thousands of pieces of work turned to ashes, along with most records ascertaining their existence--months and years in the careers of artists were erased in hours.

Sixteen years later, River North is still home to a popular gallery district, and most artists and dealers insist they've moved on from the devastating blaze. However, it's taken up to the last couple of years for all the lawsuits to be settled, and only a handful of the galleries involved survive today. There are questions that have never been answered--many that perhaps never will be. What would the Chicago arts scene be like today had the building survived? Would galleries have still spread from River North to other areas of the city?

"That gallery district was never the same," Arlene Rakoncay, executive director of the Chicago Artists' Coalition, says of River North. "There was so much vitality--I don't think it has ever recovered."

The most significant question of all--what caused the fire--has never been answered. Many people interviewed say they've always believed it was arson, though few were willing to maintain that on the record.

The Brunswick Balke-Collender factory complex was designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan and built from 1881 to 1902. Once one of the world's major producers of bowling balls and billiard tables, the complex actually consisted of a cluster of six buildings--the four main ones being a warehouse, a factory, a warehouse addition and a factory addition. One could easily maneuver from building to building through a system of connecting walkways. "This building is certainly not one of the major works of Adler and Sullivan from an aesthetic point of view," said architectural historian Charles Gregersen during hearings held in June 1988 to determine whether the complex would get landmark status. "But?it is one of the few buildings?still standing. In that sense it is extremely important."

The structure's "Chicago pink" brick exterior was non-descript, but it was the interior that would ultimately captivate art enthusiasts. No future spaces were ever able to live up to the 13-foot ceilings and expansive floor plans. The hardwood floors were supported by timbers, which reportedly dripped sap until shortly before the fire. Massive elevators, which had been used to transport entire bowling alleys, lured dealers to work with art of a much larger scale than they'd ever before imagined.

"You could go from the loading dock and bring in the world," says Natalie van Straaten, executive director of the Chicago Art Dealers Association and editor and publisher of Chicago Gallery News. "That space encouraged gallery owners to take risks."

Those who used to frequent the galleries describe the space as having been made for art, but it took vision at the time for art to be hung in an old, empty factory. In 1976, art dealers Robert Zolla and Roberta Lieberman opened a gallery space in the American Metal Ware building, which stood at the southwest corner of the Brunswick block and was much smaller than any of those structures. Still standing today (the firemen were able to save this building), the American Metal Ware building was the first structure on the block to switch from industrial to commercial use. Although on its own in this area, the Zolla/Lieberman Gallery was able to draw art enthusiasts and clients, and when offered a larger space in the Brunswick building--which had long ago been vacated by Brunswick--the dealers moved.

In the Brunswick building, Zolla/Lieberman Gallery had an astounding 10,000 square feet (the gallery's current location, 325 W. Huron, one of the larger gallery spaces in River North, is 5,000 square feet). It didn't take long for other galleries to move into the building that seemed to have been made to display art. By 1986, there were 25 galleries in the building, making it one of the greatest concentrations of galleries anywhere in the world, including New York's SoHo. On Friday night gallery openings, streets were blocked off, and the crowds were so immense that it was often hard to enter the complex.

"It was a destination building," says Ann Nathan of Ann Nathan Gallery. Her gallery, then known as Objects, was located in the Brunswick building at the time of the fire. "Everybody loved it."

Whether it was the building, the art or the economy, the 1980s art market was booming, and everyone was happy to snatch a piece of the profit. Local art was being bought, and developers began to see opportunity in the Brunswick complex. Rick Murray, a real-estate developer, was drawn to the building in the mid-1980s. He envisioned turning the building into a multi-use complex--the galleries would be on the first three floors, along with boutiques, retail shops and restaurants. The upper floors would be renovated into some 200 apartments. The costs of the renovation would be high, but the growing popularity of River North seemed to make the endeavor worthwhile. The renovated complex would be called "Gallery Place."

Mesirow Realty Development, a branch of Mesirow Financial Corporation, stepped into the project in 1987 to be a 50-50 partner with Murray when his partner dropped out. Mesirow and Murray, however, soon became at odds, largely over who would do the construction. Murray let Mesirow buy him out of the project, and in December 1987, Mesirow took possession of the Brunswick complex.

The renovation project that followed was what many still remember as one of Chicago's largest, both in size and projected cost. Mesirow, which planned to spend $40 million on renovation, chose CCL of Chicago as general contractor (William Harris Smith, owner of Creative Construction Limited, set up this separate company just for the Brunswick project). Although Mesirow maintained throughout that CCL was qualified to handle the renovation, others, especially the tenants who stayed in the building, argued that the company cut corners during the project.

Nine galleries, along with BHI Corporation, a graphics firm, decided to stay in the building during the renovation. Mesirow had tried to buy the tenants out of their leases, but most who stayed decided they just had too much to move. The months that ensued brought a steady flow of complaints from the tenants--wrong walls being taken down, no construction barricades, chemical solvents dripping into the galleries, empty bottles left from workmen who'd been drinking, bricks and dust everywhere, water shut on and off and resulting floods. There was one fatality during the course of the renovation--on October 9, 1988, a worker fell from the scaffolding, falling 40 feet to his death. An autopsy showed that the man had been drinking, and J.B. Barsh Construction, the sub-contractor hired to clean the outside of the building, maintained the man was not on his shift when he fell.

Right around the time of the major asbestos legislation, Mesirow was in the process of removing the asbestos from the complex. William van Straaten remembers the asbestos removal company workers coming into his gallery in masks and hoods. Ann Nathan recalls how there was a bathroom adjacent to her gallery that was used constantly, especially by workers during the renovation, until a sign showed up on the door one day--"Asbestos: Use at your own risk."

"No one used it after that," Nathan says, chuckling. "They wouldn't even go in for a second. It was like a death sentence."

A February 24, 1989 fire in the building was the first of three fires that would occur in the building. This first fire seemed to have started when a spark from a welder's torch ignited a tarpaulin. While putting out the blaze, Harold Rowe, owner of Rowe Company Fine Arts, ruptured two disks in his neck, causing him to lose feeling in his arm for two years.

"You're bringing out skeletons in a closet with this," says Victoria Addison, former wife of Harold Rowe. "There shouldn't have been anyone in there during the construction. It was an accident waiting to happen. Harold's injury proved negligence."

According to a Chicago magazine article published in August 1989, a fire department inspector's notes, taken during an April visit, read, "Again no plans submitted--seems like no regard for safety?Tenants still in building--temp. standpipe east section only--immediate suit. Definite life safety and fire hazard."

On Thursday, April 13, two days before the major fire, a fire started while pipefitters were drilling into the wood floor. It took firefighters an hour to put out the fire, but there wasn't much damage. The firefighters tore out everything that had been burned and doused the entire area with water. But after months of dust, debris, water and fire, the emotional damage was done--William van Straaten, the most infuriated of any of the tenants, headed to court the following day in an attempt to halt the construction. He was planning on moving out of the building at the end of the month, but wanted the construction to stop until he did so. Although the judge refused to shut down all the construction, he banned work from being done around van Straaten's gallery.

The final days before the fire were ominous. Paul Klein, owner of Klein Gallery, which later became Klein Art Works, doubled his insurance after the smaller fires. Chuck Emmett, the building's maintenance man, who had an apartment in the complex, moved out. The April 13 fire had been near his apartment, killing his pet parakeet and sparrow. When the water damage proved to be too much to clean up, Emmett booked a room at the Wacker Hotel. He knew what everyone else would soon know: the building's fire system--the alarms and the sprinklers--had been shut down months before (Mesirow would later argue that the fire department gave them permission to turn off the system, but it was never determined if this was true).

"In a lot of people's eyes, the building wasn't going to make it," says William van Straaten, going on to cite how construction had continued without permits and through evacuation orders. "It was a disaster, and the city just turned its eye."

The workers arrived around 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 15. When a team of men met a cloud of smoke upon reaching one of the upper floors, they evacuated and called the fire department. At 6:36 a.m., the first alarm was sounded.

The Kleins received a phone call from their alarm company shortly after 7 a.m., notifying them that their alarm had gone off. The company called back a minute later--there was a fire in the building. The Kleins immediately left for their gallery, and what they saw when they arrived would later fuel conspiracy theories of arson. Three corners of one of the upper floors were burning, but the fires didn't appear connected. Though no one knows for sure where the fire started, many assume it was in the basement (police investigators later determined there was a single point of origin).

William Lieberman was in his car at 7 a.m. driving home from a friend's house, and there was coverage on the radio about a big burning building in River North. Looking up through his window, he says he could see the smoke.

"As I came east on Huron, I pulled up three blocks away, got out of my car and broke into tears," Lieberman recalls. His mother, Roberta Lieberman, and Bob Zolla, both now deceased, were already on the scene, but William doesn't remember seeing them. He was in the process of moving at the time and had been storing his personal art collection in the gallery for safekeeping. "I started pounding the ground because I knew my life at this point was going to change. The business was burning down, my personal collection was burning down, and my life was about to change drastically."

William Lieberman had been the last person in the building the night of April 14. Oberlin College was hosting an event in the Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, and when only about 20 of the expected 100 people showed up, Lieberman got to keep all the leftover food. "I was excited about all that food," he says. "I never got to enjoy it." He had left the gallery around 9 p.m.

Unable to bear watching the building burn, Lieberman drove home from the scene. Most others, however, chose to watch the spectacular fire--crowds of gapers grew as the numbers of firefighters and trucks increased and helicopters flew overhead. The fire appeared to be moving from the top down. Dealers and artists watched in excruciating agony as the galleries were, in time, consumed with fire. The day's crisp blue sky was completely darkened with smoke--smoke that was visible from suburban Hillside and Hickory Hills. Within a few hours, flames gushed from every window of the Brunswick complex, and onlookers felt the heat a block away.

"It was an extraordinary fire," remembers artist Mary Lou Zelazny, who at the time had more than 10 pieces in the Peter Miller Gallery. "There were flames shooting out the windows. At the time, that was more compelling than the loss of everyone's work there. The loss didn't sink in until much later."

As people were captivated and drawn in to watch the fire, there were reminders that the surrounding vicinity was treacherous. By 9 a.m., Orleans and Huron were covered in ashes, charred wood and bricks. Floors fell, one down upon the other, and walls crashed onto the street. The fire was repeatedly boosted in status, up to a 5-11 alarm, but the 180 firefighters and 50 pieces of equipment on the scene couldn't compete with the blaze, which had flames that reached 50 feet in height. A gentle shower fell as steam from the fire condensed in the cool air.

"The building had no chance," says William van Straaten.

What the dealers and artists cherished about the Brunswick complex--the rough-edged joists and timber beams, the expansive hardwood floors--fed the fire. Investigators later learned that many of the fire doors had been removed during the construction, and some had been replaced with plywood. The sprinkler system had not only been shut off--it was partially dismantled.

A couple of firefighters were injured during the fire, but none seriously. A cat, who'd been living in the American Metal Ware building, safely jumped from a fifth floor window, landing on her feet.

The rubble that was the Brunswick complex smoldered for three days. Firefighters continuously doused water over the debris to keep the dust down and to prevent another fire. Blackened skeletons of a few walls and staircases reached eerily into the sky--images today reminiscent of 9/11. Then, however, the site reminded onlookers of war-torn, bombed-out cities.

"I couldn't go anywhere near there," says William Lieberman. "It looked like Dresden after a bomb had hit it."

It didn't take long for the 100-year-old complex that had been the building block of River North to be wiped from existence. The legal battles and emotional ordeals that ensued, however, have lasted almost until today.

Nine galleries lost everything on April 15: Peter Miller Gallery, Klein Gallery, Rowe Company Fine Arts, Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, East-West Contemporary Art Inc., Habitat Gallery, Sazama-Brauer Gallery, Objects and Van Straaten Gallery. There had also been a photography studio in the building. Experts estimated that 25 percent of Chicago's art world was wiped out that Saturday morning.

There was a solo show displaying work by Chema Cobo at the Zolla/Lieberman Gallery at the time of the fire. "The saddest aspect of all of this was the work that was lost," says Lieberman. "There were certain pieces on consignment that I felt were some of the most important works that the

artists had created. Artists certainly have a point where they have a career show, and I thought Chema Cobo's show was the finest work he'd ever created. The whole show was lost. There was a remarkable imagery that he had broken through with--it was a fabulous exhibition."

Rowe Company Fine Arts had dealt exclusively with the estates of deceased artists. Three major estates, totaling some 900 paintings, burned in the fire, erasing nearly entire careers of artists. One of the most significant losses was the estate of abstract painter Warren Davis. His widow and daughter, who'd always waited for Davis to get the broad recognition he deserved, had entrusted Rowe Company with the majority of his paintings.

Van Straaten says his gallery, which dealt mostly with prints, lost more than 10,000 pieces. Klein remembers spending 30 hours digging through the rubble after the fire. He was able to find "artifacts" of the work of every artist his gallery had represented. There had been a show with work by Jonathan Santlofer--who eventually left the art scene to become a writer. His first book was The Death Artist. Jun Kaneko's dangos, large-scale sculptures known in Japanese as "dumplings," essentially exploded in the blaze. Klein says he remembers finding a book of melted slides that looked like it came from the historical society.

Steve Heyman lost five or six of his pieces in the fire. One of them was a 7 by 7-foot oil painting that had taken him a year to paint.

"It was encyclopedic of everything I'd worked on up to that point," Heyman says. "It was very complex. Sad to see that one go. As an artist, though, you're always thinking the next work is going to be best. You keep going."

Though many may have tried to put the loss behind them, Victor Cassidy, a Chicago art journalist who knew every corner of the Brunswick complex, says it wasn't that easy. "A lot of artists weren't able to keep going. Those are your things burned. It's a terrible thing psychologically. It destroys your history. It cuts your heart out and stomps on it."

Most say the kind of artwork produced didn't really change after the fire. Natalie van Straaten remembers artists temporarily creating a lot of fire imagery. Gordon Chandler, one of Ann Nathan's artists, constructed a chair made from debris from the rubble. Entitled "Phoenix Out of the Ashes," Nathan was never able to sell the piece.

Five of the nine galleries were back displaying work within two weeks of the fire. Philip Kelley, then-president of the Merchandise Mart, offered the first floor of the mart as a temporary space. He leased it to art dealers for a dollar a square foot. A few of the dealers also followed their plans to take part in the upcoming Art Expo in May, where, before the fire, they'd assumed they'd make a chunk of their yearly income. Dealers set up temporary offices in their homes, trying to assemble records of what exactly had been lost--most everyone's records burned in the fire. Reconstructing the records amounted to endless communication between the artists, dealers and insurance companies. Nathan remembers FedEx packages being sent to the burnt-out Brunswick site. Some dealers owned their pieces. Some had their work on consignment. Many had both. Several of the galleries didn't have adequate insurance. The Illinois Consignment of Art Act, which sought to further protect the artist, had passed in 1985, complicating the post-fire chaos because many businesses didn't yet know how to handle it. In a time when many of the art deals were made with a handshake, the aftermath of the fire was an insurance nightmare.

"Let's say you have a Warhol graphic," says Cassidy, "you know what it's worth. If it's a local artist, God help you. A lot of galleries weren't keeping good records, and it was impossible to prove anything afterward. It's the artist'sword against the dealer's. I thought a lot of artists got screwed."

The Chicago Artists' Coalition held a benefit to support the affected artists and placed ads and sent press releases nationally to inform them about the fire and what they could do. According to Rakoncay, some galleries didn't even let all their artists know about the fire. "Some were unscrupulous--some were nice," she says. "One gallery paid everyone. This was a wake-up call for galleries to be a little more professional. They were mad at us for the Consignment Act, but why should the artists suffer?" (The Chicago Artists' Coalition had helped pass the Consignment Act. After the fire, Peter Miller took the act to court, challenging its constitutionality, but lost.)

"Even galleries that weren't involved realized you needed clearer consignment papers," says Natalie van Straaten.

Lawsuits swirled in the aftermath of the blaze. Though at times at odds, most of the artists and the dealers had a common foe--Mesirow. Many say they believed that the company hadn't kept the building safe, though Mesirow continued to maintain that was not the case. For a long time, the vacant Brunswick site was used as a parking lot--the lawsuits piling up upon it.

After a probe of several weeks, police and fire investigators left the cause of the fire undetermined. There were logical reasons for all the accelerants found in the rubble, and what was left was too charred to provide many answers. There were rumors, however, that the police and fire departments never compared notes from their separate investigations.

"There were all kinds of mysterious questions that were never answered," says Cassidy. "It's always been a question in my mind--how did it spread so fast? There are fires all the time that are contained in large buildings. Had lives been lost, there would have been a more systematic investigation. But this is Chicago."

The years that followed were challenging for the local art scene. Not only did many dealers and artists have to start over at the beginning, the art market crashed in the early 90s. "At the time of the fire, the international art market had reached an inflated point," says Natalie van Straaten. "Then, right around the time of the fire, completely unrelated to the fire, the market fell. It was a bizarre thing and a very difficult time. But from the ashes of the fire and the economic ashes, the Chicago galleries held their own. They picked themselves up and kept going."

The galleries ended up reaching a settlement with Mesirow, but after all the legal costs, most dealers insist nothing came close to covering what they lost. "The lawyers and the construction company got rich," says Addison. "In the end it was a joke." It was said that had the case ever reached trial there wasn't a courtroom in Chicago large enough to handle it.

"There were more than 40 major law firms involved in the case," says William van Straaten. "We were told they'd have to hold the trial in a ballroom."

Despite the fact that many suspected arson, what those who lost pieces in the fire soon realized was that had arson been proved, the insurance companies wouldn't have paid. "If they'd proved it, we all would have lost," William van Straaten says.

According to most people, the 1989 fire was a turning point for River North. Some believe it caused the galleries to move to other areas of the city, namely the West Loop--others feel it just accelerated the process. Almost everyone agrees, though, that River North was never the same.

"This whole fire changed the River North community forever," says Lieberman. "If the building had remained standing, it would have changed the neighborhood. I think some of the other neighborhoods, West Loop and Wicker Park, would not have developed as they did."

"That gallery district was never the same," Rakoncay says. William van Straaten, who now has a gallery in Colorado, says, "The area died."

"It would have been a much different place had it not happened," chimes Zelazny, who to this day doesn't keep a lot of work in one place. Along with displaying her pieces at Carl Hammer Gallery, she's an associate professor at the Art Institute. "The art community would have had a center instead of being split. There was a lot of momentum, and then it just stopped. Chicago was, for a brief period in the mid-'80s, a viable alternative to New York City for the young artist. To this day, all my students pack and go when they graduate."

Today, strong, sleek and gentrified townhouses stand on the old Brunswick site. Clusters of galleries still line the nearby streets. Three of the nine fire-ravaged galleries are still in business: Ann Nathan, Peter Miller and Zolla/Lieberman. To anyone walking by or driving through, to even those who now live there, River North is in its prime. However, to all who were part of Chicago's 80s art scene--perhaps a time when business for local artwork was stronger--to all who'd imagined that an old factory with art on the walls would stand forever, River North is a sketch of what it could have been. o

Published: April 01, 2005
Issue: Spring 2005


Great Article
As a Chicago Photographer I really appreciate the efforts that are put forth in supporting local art initiatives.
shalimar beekman, Jan-16-2009