History of the Fireproof Hotel
By Luke M. Snell, P.E.
The discovery of gold and silver in the West attracted countless people hoping to get rich. Boomtowns sprang up overnight as newcomers flocked to where the next perceived opportunity existed. Hotels, to accommodate the influx of people, were quickly constructed.
Wooden structures were built with a saloon on the ground floor and rooms on the upper floors. Lanterns and candles provided lighting. For those who grew up watching Westerns, you will undoubtedly recall the drunken cowboy or miner stumbling up to his room with a burning flame in his hand, a disaster waiting to happen.
Not surprisingly, there were many deadly hotel fires. Hostelers realized the need to develop a fireproof hotel to assure the public of their safety. Since concrete, brick, steel, and masonry did not burn and were becoming available, they became the materials of choice for building a fireproof hotel.
These new hotels were marketed for their safety. Some hotel advertisements in the early 1900s proclaimed, “[the city’s] Only Fireproof Hotel," "Largest, safest and most modern hotel west of New York,” or “Absolutely Fireproof.” In 1946, however, two disastrous fires changed the approach to constructing fireproof hotels.
The LaSalle Hotel opened in Chicago in 1909 and was advertised as a “safe” hotel because the primary building materials were concrete and brick. However, the lobby and dining areas were elaborately finished with varnished wood paneling and upholstered chairs. After midnight on June 5, 1946, a fire started in the Silver Grill Cocktail Lounge and spread quickly through the lobby and mezzanine balcony, fueled by the wood paneling and furniture. As a result, there were 61 fatalities, many of whom suffocated from the thick smoke.
Later that year, another hotel was the site of a tragedy. The Winecoff Hotel was constructed with structural steel in Atlanta in 1913. Although steel does not burn, it will lose its strength in a blaze, so brick and concrete were placed around it for protection. A late-night fire erupted, probably ignited by a cigarette discarded on a temporarily stored mattress in a hallway—the blaze spread, fueled by combustible burlap wallpaper. Since the stairways lacked doors, they acted as chimneys allowing the fire to spread to other floors. Of the 304 hotel guests, 119 died, and 65 were injured.
The Winecoff Hotel fire highlighted another issue: 32 deaths resulted from people jumping or using makeshift bed sheets as ropes to escape the blaze from the upper floors. The Atlanta Fire Department did not have ladders tall enough to rescue people from these heights.
A student from Georgia Tech took pictures of people jumping from the burning hotel; he won the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in 1947. This image galvanized public opinion to improve hotel safety.
The Winecoff Hotel’s "Completely Fireproof" statement on its stationery was accurate insofar as it described the building. Buildings were considered ‘fireproof’ if they could withstand a severe fire and be returned to service once refurbished. Thus, the emphasis was to save the building, not to protect human life.
“The public is being defrauded when a hotel is advertised as ‘fireproof,’ but really isn't,” Georgia’s governor said. “Responsible agencies should prohibit the use of the word ‘fireproof' when a hotel is not really fireproof as the Winecoff obviously was not.”
These two fires in major cities had extensive news coverage and highlighted the need for change. In 1947, President Truman requested a national convention on fire prevention to ensure the public of the safety of hotels. This event resulted in the 1948 fire-safe code that addressed issues, such as the combustibility of the materials used, detection and warning systems, hotel capacity, and exits.
The fire at the Winecoff Hotel, 1947.
The declaration of a fireproof hotel proved to be only partially correct. Materials can be used so that the building itself can survive a fire. But since hotel guests bring luggage, and there are flammable materials in the room, hotel fires still occur. Thus, there are no genuinely fireproof hotels.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Jan/Feb 2021 issue, Vol. 10, No. 1.