Currently known as the largest convention center in North America, Chicago’s McCormick Place was once struck with tragedy. Built in November 1960 as a $35 million facility, it stood as the centerpiece of the nation’s tradeshow industry. The convention center was thought to be fireproof because of its steel and concrete foundation, but one cold, bitter night in January proved that theory wrong.
Set to open the morning of Jan. 16, 1967, the National Housewares Manufacturers Association (NHMA) Show housed roughly 1,250 exhibitor booths, containing kitchen and household appliances, most of which were highly combustible. Around 2 a.m. on the morning of the show, janitors reported smoke rising from behind one of the exhibitor booths. Attempting to extinguish the fire themselves, the janitors tried to beat at the fire with brooms, pieces of carpet and other nearby objects. Instead of helping the situation, this method only hindered it when nearby booths caught fire.
Upon arriving at the scene, firefighters from the Chicago Fire Department categorized the situation as a “first alarm” fire, which generally meant that three engine companies, two ladder companies and one battalion chief responded. Although the NHMA Show dealt with highly flammable items, fire personnel were unaware that four out of seven nearby fire hydrants were shut off, and the show floor lacked a sprinkler system. Due to the deficiency of resources, any efforts to quench the fire were severely delayed, resulting in the order of a second alarm. By 2:30 a.m., only 30 minutes after the fire broke out, Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn arrived on the scene to sound the fifth alarm, requiring all personnel and roughly 65 percent of Chicago’s fire equipment to assist in containing the massive fire.
Forty-five minutes had passed.
With two-thirds of the building engulfed in flames, Chicago firefighters continued to make any possible attempt to save the beloved convention center. While fire personnel relied on fire hydrants more than a half-mile away, three of the city’s fire boats drew water from Lake Michigan. The fire subsided around 10 a.m., but the roof had completely collapsed, destroying the entire convention center. Holding the largest seating capacity of any theater in Chicago, the Arie Crown Theatre sustained only minor damages and was easily rebuilt. Although McCormick Place had endured a tragic night, the fire was not the only tragedy. Kenneth Goodman, a 31-year-old security guard on duty that night, died in the fire.
On July 31, 1967, seven months after the fire, the official investigation report was released. Led by Rolf H. Jensen, professor of fire protection engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, the investigation team concluded that not only was there a lack of sprinklers and working fire hydrants, but the building’s construction was unable to withstand the fire regardless of the severity.
Bringing great news to the city of Chicago, McCormick Place reopened its doors on Jan. 3, 1971, showcasing a new 300,000 square-foot exhibition hall that would continuously grow over the years. The convention center now proudly consists of roughly 2.6 million square feet.