What’s That Building? The Chicago Fire Academy

The Chicago Fire Academy, located at the corner of De Koven and Jefferson.
The Chicago Fire Academy, located at the corner of De Koven and Jefferson. Jason Marck/WBEZ
The Chicago Fire Academy, located at the corner of De Koven and Jefferson.
The Chicago Fire Academy, located at the corner of De Koven and Jefferson. Jason Marck/WBEZ

What’s That Building? The Chicago Fire Academy

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Chicago’s De Koven Street has only one address. The Chicago Fire Academy, located at 558 W. De Koven St., is a sharp-looking, mid-century modern building, wrapped in part by bright orange brick. It was once the home of a cow who was — for more than a century — blamed for starting the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Crain’s Chicago Business reporter Dennis Rodkin talks about the Chicago Fire Academy building, its history, and its uncertain future. 

The O’Learys and their infamous cow

The Chicago Fire Academy building opened in 1961, but the site’s notoriety extends back to Oct. 8, 1871, when Patrick and Catherine O’Leary’s cow was mistakenly believed to have started the fire that swept across more than 3 square miles of Chicago, destroying 18,000 buildings, killing some 300 people, and leaving 100,000 homeless.

The cow and Mrs. O’Leary were officially exonerated by the Chicago City Council 20 years ago, and there are several theories now about how the fire started. A drunken neighbor might have been in the O’Leary’s barn and started the fire accidentally. Or, as it’s more commonly believed, a summerlong drought and a very hot October evening might have ignited several brush fires. But the romantic story of the O’Leary cow took hold.

From fire site to fire academy 

After the fire in October 1871, the O’Learys moved to 51st and Halsted streets. The city of Chicago bought the site on De Koven Street in 1928 for $36,000 and planned to build a memorial. 

Dennis Rodkin for WBEZ

In 1954, the city transferred the building to a land clearance agency that was acquiring property to build an expressway, which now crosses two blocks west of the Fire Academy. After the expressway was constructed, the unused land transferred back to the city.

In the late 1950s, a plan got rolling to build a new fire academy on the O’Leary site — a plan that dripped with irony from the beginning.

One of the reasons the 1871 fire got out of control and burned so much of the city is that the fire battalion was inadequate in numbers and was worn out from fighting other fires, including one the day before the big one. So training firefighters on the site where the fire purportedly started was sort of an audacious move.

A mid-1800s steam-powered fire truck is on display at the Chicago Fire Academy. (Jason Marck/WBEZ)

City architect Paul Gerhardt Jr. designed the Fire Academy. He took over the post from his father, also named Paul, and held it for 38 years. He designed public buildings all over the city, including fire stations on 42nd Street and South Green Street; police stations in Jefferson Park, the West Loop, and Lincoln Square; a branch library on Belmont Avenue in Lakeview; and the original administration building for Midway Airport. 

Chronologically, the buildings show Gerhardt going from fanciful, European-inspired firehouses with flagstone arches, to light Art Deco in the 1930s, to hard-edged modernism in the 1940s, and, finally, to his dramatic mid-century modern Fire Academy in 1961.

Today’s academy

The Fire Academy is currently one of the city’s sharpest mid-century buildings, but it’s often overlooked because of its once-isolated site.

On the northwest corner of the site, at Taylor and Jefferson streets, the building is a five-story cube of bright orange brick, with a line of clerestory windows along the top of the fire-training wing. Inside those brick walls is an artificial streetscape of fire escapes, windows, and chimneys that are used for mock firefighting exercises.

On the southeast side is a three-story wing for offices and classrooms. This wing is wrapped in windows with horizontal sun shades projecting off them.

Jason Marck/WBEZ

The mid-century style of the Fire Academy has at least one big fan: Sharon Helmold, who is married to Brian Helmold, a Chicago Fire Department official who took the helm of the Fire Academy earlier this year.

“She loves that mid-century modern stuff,” he told me as we toured the building. “She wants to bring all her mid-century modern furniture to put in my office.

The building’s future

Any decorating Sharon Helmold does to her husband’s traditional wood-panelled office will be temporary, though. In a few years, firefighter training, and presumably her husband, will move to the new site.

In July, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans to replace both the Fire Academy and a West Loop police training facility with a new $95 million combined training center on 30 acres near Chicago Avenue and Pulaski Road. The new training center is supposed to be complete in the year 2020, and the city hasn’t announced plans for the two facilities it will replace. 

As we approach the 146th anniversary of the fire on Sunday, the question is: How much longer will this firefighter-training building be an ironic monument to a massive fire that the city couldn’t beat?