This post is part of our ongoing study of Chicago’s defining building forms and the history of our communities as written in buildings. Read about Bungalows, Worker Cottages, Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU), Courtyard Apartment Buildings, Residential Hotels, Greystone Flats, Four-Plus-One Apartments, and Skyscrapers.
You won’t find a Fire Cottage on just any corner in Chicago (only a few remain), which makes it a deviation from our usual Chicago Building Type posts. However, there was a time when they were THE go-to residence for Chicago residents. Right after the Great Chicago Fire decimated the city’s housing stock, these little cottages popped up like mushrooms after a rain, filling in the shelter gap before more permanent dwellings could be constructed.
The Temporary Fix of the Fire Cottage
Since they were built as short-term shelter solutions immediately after the great fire, these modest homes originally featured pretty much just … exterior walls and a roof.
The Chicago History Museum lists the total cost of building materials as $100 for the one-door, two-window buildings.
Over five thousand were built in one month to house families without homes through that first winter.
WTTW’s interactive time machine website shows the breakdown for a slightly larger 16′ x 20′ cottage here.
Most of those 52-stud houses were probably not used for long past when a family could scrape together the resources for something more permanent. For obvious psychological reasons, brick homes became very popular in post-fire Chicago. But at least a few were built to last. The original building materials were improved on over the years, and an unknown number of fire cottages probably survive in the middle of a patchwork of renovations and additions, hidden under more modern exteriors.
The Mini Marvel of Menomonee
One Fire Cottage, in particular, has garnered a spate of attention in the past few years from Curbed, DNAinfo, and the New York Times, in part because it has just gone up for sale. The tiny wooden cottage in Old Town was built a few years after the Great Fire in 1874. In fact, it was built just before wooden buildings were banned in that neighborhood (they were outlawed in the areas closer to downtown almost immediately after the fire, but the rules were slower to change in outlying districts).
The cottage on Menomonee is beloved, both for its astonishing quaint and tiny appearance and for being one of the two remaining free-standing fire cottages left. The other is a granny flat in a nearby back yard. To quote the Times,
“Given how many of its owners have wanted to alter or demolish the house, it’s remarkable that it still exists, let alone resembles its original self.”
The tiny building has been subject to many modifications over the years, with bedrooms created and demolished and a garage added at the rear. Neither the kitchen nor the bathroom is original to the house (those luxury features were not standard for worker housing when it was constructed). Still, it represents (with jaw-dropping accuracy) the scale of this building type compared to more recent residential construction. More powerful than any model or reconstruction, it shows a tiny glimpse of life in a very different time.
Why Care About One Tiny House?
The American Ethos states clearly that a house belongs to its owner to maintain as they like and to do with what they will. This tiny Fire Cottage is not a museum; it’s a house, and it’s on the market again, about to pass into the hands of another owner or another custodian in its long line of residents and caregivers.
So why should the public, or a design firm like moss, feel interested in its welfare and longevity?
In addition to being someone’s home, the Fire Cottage on Menomonee is a nearly unique relic of Chicago’s history. Its continued existence enhances the complexity of our urban fabric. It combines with turn-of-the-century brick apartment buildings, grey stone houses, and modernist glass towers to make up the essence of Chicago. The diversity of our buildings and the history and continuity that they represent are part of what makes this city great. Today we celebrate that this tiny building has survived the vagaries of fate, fire codes, and flourishing property values to exist to this day.
Let’s hope it lasts another 141 years in this spot.