Twenty years ago today, a devastating fire ripped through the Huron–Orleans Building in Chicago. Once a billiard table factory, the structure was home to a large amount of galleries at the time and arguably the center of the River North gallery district. It was actually three buildings. One small structure, that I assume contained the original Brunswick offices and two imposing brick structures that took up the rest of the city block bounded by Orleans, Huron, Sedgwick and Superior. Unfortunately, the huge brick complex had a timber core that burned for hours. Today, one would hardly know that it ever existed. The million-dollar townhouses that replaced it seem to have been there forever.
For many, The Fire marked the end of the glory days of the 80s art scene. Galleries were destroyed. Whole bodies of work, literally went up in smoke. In the following months, The Chicago Artists’ Coalition’s Art News chronicled the battles between artists and galleries and insurers. It was ugly.
For some, the end had already begun a year and a half earlier on Black Friday, as the stock market crash of ’87 sent the art world in a skid. The non-profits that were largely in the basement of the Huron-Orleans Building had already moved and was establishing a new, edgier scene in the West Town area.
At the time of the fire, I was working on my first public art project for the city at Navy Pier and remember the huge plume of smoke to the West. Being new to the art world, I wasn’t sure what long term effect, if any, The Fire would have. Looking back there have been some exciting things since; the aforementioned West Town district, The Cold House Group, World Tatoo, Wicker Park and others have always given me hope that there is something good happening here. To me the art scene never fully recovered. Although, perhaps, to a young artist just out of school, what was happening around the Huron–Orleans Building just seemed bigger than it was.
Photo credit: Erik Richmond