The Chicago Firehouse: the first day of the rest of its life

The Chicago Firehouse:  the first day of the rest of its life
Photot/Chicago Tribune

The Chicago Firehouse  caught fire yesterday.  Extra alarms.  Scores of firefighters.  I could smell the smoke at my house at Roosevelt and State from the fire at 14th and Michigan.  I could hear the never-ending sirens.   And the helicopters capturing it live for the news.

They say it was an accident.  Workers.  And Propane tanks.  On the roof.

The Chicago Firehouse--a real firehouse that has been a restaurant for the last 15 years in the South Loop--was built in 1905 and served in its heyday as the firehouse for the famous residents of Prairie Avenue--"the sifted few." It's an historic landmark.

It was renovated and opened as a restaurant by Matthew O'Malley.  And for that, he  deserves kudos.  I remember when it was brand new; a neighbor and good friend was talking on the phone to a relative in St. Louis and she said--about an anniversary dinner that night with her husband--"We're going to dinner in a converted firehouse in the neighborhood this evening.  It should be interesting."

And I thought to myself, I sure am proud to live in a neighborhood with cherished historic landmarks, glad that neighbors pridefully tell others that an adaptive reuse a few blocks away is special.  I recommended it to many people.

The Chicago Firehouse may be dead now.  Beyond resuscitation.  Gone. Finished.

The roof caved in after the firefighters put the fire out.  The inside is gutted.  I heard a wall collapsed.  As one of my friends just said in an email, "I don't know if it can be salvaged.  I'm not a structural engineer."

I wonder what happened during the fire to the original fireman's pole that was still inside.  And the bright lights that lit up the outside at night.  And I wonder what will happen to the car hikers, the bartenders, the waitstaff, the kitchen staff….

The Chicago Firehouse, no matter what anyone ever said about its politically connected proprietors, its food, drinks, decor or anything else, was a South Loop institution.  A place unlike anything else in the neighborhood.  Understated and overstated all at the same time.  With a beautiful walled-in patio in the summer where one night I saw (for the third time) "Julie & Julia" as I ate dinner.  My boyfriend ordered the Beef Bourguignon; I had fish and mashed potatoes and Stoli Martinis with a lemon twist--under the trees in the breeze on 14th street.

I've gone to many dinners and birthday parties and meetings and luncheons and bridal showers at the Chicago Firehouse, celebrated so many occasions I have totally lost count.

"I went to a wedding there," a friend said  yesterday. "Not just the reception.  The wedding, too."

I spent time with so many friends and relatives and neighbors and community groups at the Chicago Firehouse that I feel like someone I knew well died.  Or is at least severely ill.

Having the firehouse in the neighborhood was a joy.  A comfort.

And yes, I got very mad at it when it hosted  a birthday party--thrown by regular customer Richie Daley--for George W. Bush several years ago. How could it?  I demanded to know.  But it did.  And that publicity probably brought in some business.  And lost some, too.

The Chicago Firehouse may be over.  Althought O'Malley says he will rebuild.

I just hope the rebuilding doesn't mean a high-rise with a restaurant off the lobby.

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