TBT: Fire, the State Capitol & Prohibition

Illinois State Capitol under construction in 1871
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum
Illinois has had six capitol buildings in three cities. The first three capitols met untimely fates. Our first capitol building, in Kaskaskia, was lost to the shifting course of the Mississippi River, which has taken most of our first capital city over the past two centuries. Illinois’ second statehouse; the first one to stand in Vandalia; did not last long. On the night of December 9, 1823, the building was destroyed by fire. The third statehouse was torn down by desperate local citizens who thought they could retain the seat of government in their city if they built a more stately-looking building.

Those civic boosters in Vandalia failed, but the structure they ultimately built; our fourth capitol; still stands today. So does our fifth capitol: at 6th and Adams in Springfield. It was replaced starting in 1868 by the sixth and current Capitol building at 2nd and Monroe. But on one summer afternoon in 1933, it seemed the run of bad luck for statehouses in Illinois might claim another victim.

On Sunday, July 9, 1933, a fire broke out in a store room on the 5th floor of the Capitol’s south wing. It quickly spread to the 6th floor office of the division of oil inspection, and the nearby offices of the division of agriculture and the state supervising architect.

Firefighters rushed to the scene to fight the blaze, while state officials hurried to the building to protect important papers and priceless artifacts. Meanwhile, a large crowd of spectators gathered to observe the fire and the efforts to counter it. A photo shows a group climbing on the Lincoln statue on the east steps of the Capitol for a better view. The next day’s Illinois State Journal featured a front page photo of smoke billowing from the building’s south wing, and noted that members of the public, “preferred to watch the flames from a vantage point outside, where more could be seen than dripping water.”

Secretary of State Edward Hughes, custodian of the Capitol, directed efforts to protect other parts of the building from damage, while Governor Henry Horner arrived minutes after the first firefighters and ordered the portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas three floors directly below in the House chamber to be covered with tarps. A portrait of George Washington on display in the chamber was removed, but action could not be taken fast enough to prevent the Speaker’s podium and a large part of the chamber from becoming soaked with water falling from above.

For three hours, firefighters battled the blaze, with Chief William Funderburk summoning “almost every piece of firefighting apparatus in the city,” according to the Journal. Their task was made more difficult by the presence of scaffolding and equipment which were part of a re-roofing effort then underway. Late in the afternoon a section of the roof collapsed, narrowly missing a group of firefighters who dove for cover under tables.

Firefighters finally succeeded in getting the flames under control around 5:30 in the evening. So much water had been used that it was reported to be cascading down elevator shafts and stairwells, causing damage on the floors below. Committee rooms on the 4th and 5th floors, the House chamber and Speaker Arthur Roe’s private office on the 3rd floor, offices of the Secretary of State and the old Supreme Court chamber on the 2nd floor all reported water damage. Lighting on the 2nd floor took on a ghostly effect as water dripped down into the bowls of the fixtures surrounding the still-shining bulbs. Eventually, the water made it all the way into the basement.

One Springfield firefighter, Harold Huckey of Number 1 Engine House, was injured when he fell through a weakened floor and suffered broken ribs. Due to the fact that the fire occurred on a Sunday afternoon, there were very few workers or members of the public in the building. Damage was estimated at just under $100,000.

Governor Horner poses with three dogs
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum
The next morning’s Journal remarked if Governor Horner ever chose to leave politics he could, “stay in the public service by applying for a job as a fire fighter. He lost no time in climbing the stairs back of the House chamber to the scene of battle near committee rooms.”

The state did not have insurance on the Capitol building or any other state property in 1933, instead relying on a standing appropriation; which was $175,000 that year; to pay for fire damages in state buildings. Hours later, the scene was declared safe from fire, and inspectors began looking over the building to determine what kind of repairs would have to be made.

But the story doesn’t end there. The fire also affected Illinois’ role in a critical moment in the nation’s history. Earlier that year, Congress had started the process of adding a 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, an amendment which would repeal the 18th Amendment enacting prohibition. Illinois had enthusiastically embraced the cause.

The General Assembly adopted a joint resolution calling for a state convention to meet and discuss ratifying the repeal amendment. In April both houses and the Governor had enacted House Bill 441, setting by law the time and place for the repeal convention to meet: 12 noon, Monday, July 10, 1933, in the House chamber. That is, the very chamber which was now full of water and crumbling, falling plaster.

Elections for delegates to the convention had been held on June 5, and all 50 delegates were members of the “wet” slate, delegates who favored repeal of Prohibition, defeating their “dry” counterparts.

“Before a galaxy of distinguished visitors in the crowded House of Representatives, the 50 wet delegates to the repeal convention formally will place Illinois in the procession of states knocking out the dry paragraphs of the constitution,” the Illinois State Register had predicted on the day of the fire.

They were right about everything but the location.

While water was still dripping into the chamber, the jokes had started floating around: wet chamber, wet delegates.

“The hall had been all arranged for the repeal convention, but became sadly ‘wet’ before its time,” quipped the Journal.

Jokes aside, though, the convention did face a very real problem. The time and place of the convention had been specifically set by law. Convention delegates were arriving in the capital city while the smoke was still rising from the statehouse. The designated location was clearly unsafe. In the hours after the fire, a plan began to come together.

At noon on Monday, Horner called the convention to order in a chamber, “where great pools of water stood on the floors,” according to the Register. Wet plaster continued to fall from walls and ceilings in the building as delegates cautiously entered.

Horner made his way to the front of the wrecked chamber and called the convention to order, followed by a roll call and a comment from the Governor.

“You are all familiar with the fact there was a disastrous fire in this wing of the Capitol Building last night, and it is apparent that this Chamber is unsafe as a location for the holding of this Convention, by reason of the damage resulting from fire and water and the danger from falling plaster and fixtures,” Horner said.

He then recognized Delegate George Barrett of Chicago for a resolution. The resolution stated that, “the State Architect of the State of Illinois has declared the said Hall of Representatives to be in a dangerous and unsafe condition for the holding of this Convention and would jeopardize the lives of the delegates and the public in attendance,” and resolved that the convention recess and re-convene across the rotunda in the Senate chamber. Not surprisingly, the resolution was adopted unanimously, and the convention “repaired to the Senate Chamber to continue its session,” in the words of the convention journal.

The move across the rotunda turned out to be the only moment of drama in the convention. Delegates heard a speech from the Governor, adopted procedural resolutions and then moved to the heart of the matter. They voted unanimously to make Illinois the 10th state to ratify the 21st Amendment. Its business done, the convention adjourned less than an hour after it convened. The fire, at least as it affected the repeal convention, turned out to be a minor inconvenience.

Two days after the blaze, the State Fire Marshal, Sherman Coultas, blamed spontaneous combustion for the fire. A cause was never officially determined. The Register also reported that day that he had, “launched steps today to forestall future fires in the state house.”

Two years later, those steps were put to the test.

On July 4, 1935, another fire broke out in the Capitol, near the same spot as the 1933 fire. It was almost a perfect re-enactment of the blaze from two years before: the 5th floor of the south wing, architectural papers and office furniture destroyed by fire, water damage in the House chamber, and “big puddles stood around the Speaker’s desk,” according to the Register.

Once again, Horner “was one of the spectators and after checking the damage said that it would not be heavy and that immediate repairs would be made,” said the paper.

Horner was correct, the 1935 was much less severe than 1933, causing about $2,000 in damage. This time, the fire started in a committee room and was under control within a half an hour.

“Firemen arriving at the scene immediately set about to keep the flames from spreading and were successful,” reads the Journal’s account. The building staff knew the drill: “hurriedly covering the speaker’s rostrum in the House of Representatives and other desks, remembering the situation two years ago when the House sustained heavy damage from water.”

The fire happened a short time after Horner signed legislation appropriating $1 million in state and federal funds for a new State Arsenal just across Monroe Street from the Capitol, replacing the arsenal that had burned down on February 4, 1934. The General Assembly had also just passed legislation appropriating $45,000 to the Secretary of State to repair damages from the 1933 fire. Wire netting had been installed over seats in the front rows of the House chamber to protect members from falling plaster which had been weakened by water in 1933.

Once again, residents flocked to the Capitol to see the dark smoke billowing out of the top windows of the south wing, but this time the newspaper reported that tourists in the Capitol building itself did not know there was fire. The damage was repaired, and business returned to normal.

For more than a century and a half the Illinois State Capitol at 2nd and Monroe has endured its share of challenges: fires, severe weather and ice storms, just to name a few. It has been the scene of ongoing renovations and restorations for years now, all in the name of preserving this great, historic capitol building as the seat of Illinois state government for generations to come.