There was a fire on Sunday night (January 17, 2016) at the Harris Machinery warehouse in the “Prospect North” neighborhood. In an area full of potential and challenge for redevelopment, the Harris building was one of the few old buildings with realistic prospects of re-use.
Built in the 1880s the building was rare for surviving so long and without substantial alteration. It was typical of warehouses of the era, rather than standing out for any notable feature or point of interest, as an historic consultants’ report from 2003 makes clear. Even just a decade ago there was little visible deterioration of the roof and structure, but the heavy snows in the winter of 2010/11 helped bust the roof of the Harris building as well.
Despite the deterioration the building still had (may still have) potential for re-development. A former warehouse is easier to redevelop for new commercial or residential uses than the grain elevator that stands behind it. Standing just a couple of hundred yards from the Prospect Park Green line station, and with Surly Brewing close by, the economic potential of the land alone is significant.
In the past year the property has been cleaned up substantially by Prospect Park Properties. Even adjusting for seasonal change, at the time of the Sunday night fire there was much less vegetation around the building than in this August 2014 view.
A History of Urban Fires
We tend to forget now, but fire was one of the great fears of dense, urban life until around World War II. While reading the letters of an entertainer who traveled in the Midwest in the 1910s and 1920s I was struck by the number of hotels—in Chippewa Falls, in St Paul, in Cedar Rapids, and elsewhere—whose complimentary letterhead paper proudly proclaimed they were “fireproof.” Sometimes the feature was paired with “running water,” a telling indication in advertising of what guests were thought to care about. Preventing the spread of fire was a genuine and logical reason to restrict density and proximity in cities. (Those who want to read more should see Mark Tebeau’s recent book Eating Smoke)
Large urban fires like Chicago, Boston and San Francisco grab our attention after more than a century but the mundane reality of urban fire danger was that smaller fires that destroyed one or two buildings, a few injuries, a few deaths, added up to a far greater toll. Winter often saw the most fires, and the most challenging conditions to fight them in. Sunday’s fire in sub-zero conditions at the Harris building are a reminder of this history.
Despite the size of the fire the building remains standing, and I was surprised how visibly undamaged it was.
The amount of water used to fight the fire was most visible in the center of the building where spectacular ice formations now flow down its front.
On Monday, just under 24 hours later, I was able to get remarkably close to the building, which had already been fenced off before the fire. Others, more curious than myself or lacking a good zoom lens, had vaulted over a part of the fence that was low enough to clear easily and approached the building for a closer view.
With a thaw coming later in the week and perhaps clean-up efforts to continue the restoration work on the building, the spectacular views of the building covered in ice will not last long.
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