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Fire in the Metropolitan Block

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Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, history

Created: 6/7/2015      Updated: 8/1/2016

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Years before the Chicago Academy of Sciences called the Matthew Laflin Memorial Building home, it resided in the Metropolitan Block located in downtown Chicago. Though the Academy was still very young, by 1864 its collection had grown so much that it outgrew the space it occupied on the corner of Clark and Lake. It was at that point that the Academy made the move into the Metropolitan Block at the corner of LaSalle and Randolph, along with a variety of other businesses and corporations. While there was some space for specimens to be displayed, the space wasn’t ideal for creating museum space for the public. Despite this, for two years the Academy called the Metropolitan Block home, until one fateful day in June 1866.

Map of Washington and LaSalle intersection in downtown Chicago, circa 1893.
View of Metropolitan Block (building number 13) circa 1893 from Rand, McNally & Co.'s Birds-Eye Views and Guide to Chicago

On June 7, 1866, a fire broke out on the north end of the Block in rooms adjacent to the Academy’s rooms and moved to the museum hall. At the time of the fire, the Academy’s collection consisted of 40,000 specimens, making it one of the largest scientific collections in the United States at the time. Sadly, of the 40,000 specimens housed there, over 18,000 were destroyed or badly damaged. Acting as Academy Curator following the sudden death of Robert Kennicott in May 1866, Dr. William Stimpson sadly reported, “Half the animals and birds were lost; the extensive collections of bird’s nests and eggs were mainly consumed; nearly all the insects were destroyed; the dried crustaceans and echinoderms were all destroyed. The large herbarium was saved, with the exception of the plants of the Northern Pacific expedition. The library was much damaged by water, but most of it was still in a condition to be used.”

Stimpson endeavored to repair and preserve the damaged pieces by transporting them to a building on LaSalle and Lake. The focus turned to repairing the Metropolitan Block space for the interim and finding a permanent space to move into. The specimen wall cases were repaired and several new cases for specimen storage were constructed, turning the space into a taxidermy prep room. Because the space was meant to be temporary, little focus was put on exhibitions for the public, with only a few cases being reserved for that purpose.

A lot on Wabash north of Van Buren was purchased and a new building made of brick and iron was erected at the cost of $46,000. In an effort to protect the Academy’s invaluable collections, this structure was built “as nearly fire-proof as the technology of the time permitted.” The stairways and principal doors were made of iron, the windows featured iron shutters, and the brick walls were two feet thick. A laboratory and storeroom were located in the basement, while the first floor consisted of space for the secretary, an office, library, and meeting hall. The second floor consisted of a larger museum hall with two galleries. In December of 1867, the collection, which had continued to grow, was moved into its new home.

Resources:

Chicago, A Strangers and Tourists Guide to the City of Chicago. 1866.

Chicago and the Great Conflagration. Elias Colbert. 1872.

The Chicago Academy of Sciences: Its Past History and Present Collections. Vol. 2. Frank Collins Baker. 1908.

History of Chicago: From 1857 until the fire of 1871. Alfred Theodore Andreas. 1885.

The Nautilus, Volumes 7-9. 1893-1894.

Special Publication – Chicago Academy of Sciences, Volumes 1-3. 1902.

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