Report Examines Chicago’s Wooden Fire Escapes

A recent report took a look at the preponderance of wooden fire escapes on apartment buildings in a city renowned for being destroyed by fire.

A reader asked Curious City ( about whether Chicago’s distinctive wooden fire escapes were effective during fires.

For more than a century, Chicago’s building code has demanded two means of egress on typical two- and three-flat buildings. As early as 1906, the building code stated that every two or three-flat apartment (called “tenements” at that time) required either a fire escape or two separate stairs: one staircase located at the front of the building and another at the back. Although technically not a fire escape, back porches did satisfy building code requirements and make for another option if a front exit was unpassable.

The layout of these porches made use of Chicago’s characteristic back alleys, used for deliveries as well as, among other things, a place to get relief from the heat prior to the advent of air conditioning.

Since Chicago was a center for the lumber industry and wood has historically been a cheaper choice than metal or concrete, wood became the logical material of choice for two- and three-flats’ porches. In recent years, however, metal has been gaining traction.

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