—By: Marty Peck – Article for Lighting Design + Application—
An explosion ripped through Milwaukee’s Third Ward late one October afternoon in 1892, halting all activity in the predominantly Irish commercial district. Because of three other fires in the city, firemen took 15 minutes to get to the Union Oil Paint Co. To the hundreds gathered to watch, it appeared that the firemen quickly had the fire under control. Moments later gale-force winds suddenly blew in from the west, fanning the flames into an inferno.
All the water in the Milwaukee River didn’t seem to make a difference, as glowing brick walls crumbled into the streets. The immense Leidersdorf Tobacco building was both appalling and attractive as the tobacco gave the towering flames a distinct blue tint. That night the winds shifted to the south, and the fire lept across Van Buren Street to consume 15 long freight trains in the Central Northwestern rail yard.
When the fire reached the Milwaukee Gas Works and the city’s gas service went out, the huge fire was its only illumination. The Hanson Hop Malt House made a brilliant display when it finally caught. Burning grain poured from the lower floors like lava from a volcano, and bright green jets of flame shot out the upper windows and eaves from the superheated malt. The Hilburt Chemical Co. illuminated the city with a brilliant pyrotechnic display. Burning oils stood out amid the mass of flames that covered the horizon.
Frame houses near Lake Michigan were consumed within minutes; residents fled just in time Every available piece of fire equipment was brought from nearby towns. Steam pumpers arrived on railcars from as far away as Madison, Green Bay, and Chicago. People barely escaped the windswept flames, and many performed heroic rescues. As the winds finally died down the next day, only the river had kept the entire town from being consumed.
The largest fire in Milwaukees history consumed 16 city blocks, 440 buildings, and 215 railroad cars; 1900 people in the Irish community were left homeless. Two firemen and at least two other citizens lost their lives. Only one building was left undamaged, and the rebuilding of the Third Ward took 25 years. Today this collection of historic buildings remains intact, creating the unique architectural style of the Historic Third Ward. Until last year the community had long forgotten Milwaukee’s Great Fire.
Creative Lighting Design & Engineering first became aware of the fire during a discussion about inaugurating the Historic Third Ward’s new streetscaping. The 2-day street festival happened to occur near the 100th anniversary of the fire, but an idea to have a fire truck on display seemed insignificant Then inspiration struck—re-create the start of the fire in one of the buildings using theatrical lighting techniques.
The dramatic excitement of a fire, even a fake one, should draw a crowd and help deliver a history lesson. It would also demonstrate the emotional impact lighting can have, underscoring the design firm’s fundamental philosophy of using engineering skills to make creative ideas happen. Although somewhat skeptical at first, the Historic Third Ward Association liked the concept. It would bring attention to the area, which is known for artistic endeavors and free thinking as well as for the historic charm popular with several movie producers.
The first challenge was to find the perfect building to “burn” The warehouse selected is a historic landmark along the street festival, six stories with open floors and not too many windows. Electrical supply seemed ample at first (service to these plentiful electrical panels was later found to be disconnected). We held a mock-up in one window to try out various lighting and stage smoke ideas, and to show festival organizers what the blaze would look like
They liked it.
The lighting design had two major restrictions: minimizing intrusion to building occupants meant 3 days to set up and the tight budget eliminated the prospect of additional help and man- dated maximum bang for the buck. A rough script called for the re-creation to start with an explosion on the second floor, with the fire gradually building up through the floors and climaxing in an explosive jump to a nearby building.
Portable stage equipment and dimmer racks were chosen from a helpful, local theatrical rental house A six-channel, 2.4-kW dimmer rack was rigged and powered on each of the five upper floors. Smoke from theatrical fog machines billowed from several windows on each floor through a maze of flexible drainpipe Inside at the base of a typical window a PAR64 fixture with a 2000-W, very-narrow-spot lamp and an amber flame filter created a bright flame effect as it hit the stage smoke pouring out. A flood fixture fitted with an orange fire filter washed the Window and ceiling with a glow from the window’s flames. This design technique was applied with variations to 36 windows of this building and a few on the building nearby, requiring what seemed like a mile of cable and 75 kW of power.
The luminaires flickered randomly to complete the effect. A computerized theatrical dimmer controller located on the street was connected to all dimmer racks via DMX interface. The controller ran two continuous loops of cues simultaneously to provide the random flicker and to control the intensity and location of the fire A program of almost 200 steps or cues gave the fire drama and progression.
To maximize the realism and excitement sound effects and pyrotechnic explosions were coordinated with the lighting cues during this progression. A custom sound effects tape delivered explosions, fire crackles, glass breaking, fire bells, screams, and general panic. A well known local pyrotechnic firm supplied the flash and bang. The initial explosion came from red mines and loud reports on window ledges, remotely controlled. The final climax added a series of charges strung along a wire between the buildings on top of the mines and reports.
The setup was smooth with one major exception—power A day before the only rehearsal we discovered that service to the distribution panels had been disconnected. With the help of two local electricians, power for each dimmer rack was squeezed out of a wide variety of panels that as a group represent the historical evolution of electricity.
A dress rehearsal held the night before the 2-day event had the added pressure of being a photo opportunity for the local press. The fire was “lit;’ and the press went home satisfied.
With the controller still on inside the building and everyone outside watching the fire flicker and smoke approaching sirens Off in the distance added an eerie realism. The fire department had been notified of the event, so no one thought they would be coming to the rehearsal. A moment later, however, it seemed as if every emergency vehicle in Milwaukee was arriving. Axes in hand, firemen jumped off trucks and ran to the building, not hearing or not believing the yells that it was a fake. A second and third alarm was called in before they were convinced the fire wasn’t real. Although quite embarrassing, it was the finest review we could have imagined.
Over the next two nights the thousands of party goers didn’t know quite what to expect at a fire reenactment They were startled (to say the least) when the fire exploded on the second floor: a simultaneous event of light flashing throughout the entire floor, pyrotechnic explosions shooting directly over the crowd, and loud sound effects. Flickering flames and smoke filled the second floor then rapidly shot up through the floors. Despite the slight breeze, stage smoke began to fill the street.
As the fire filled the third and fourth floors people appeared waving and screaming from several windows. As it reached the fifth and sixth floors sirens wailed and bells clanged—an antique fire truck arrived to add to the drama. When the fire had engulfed the entire building, there was a climactic explosion from the upper windows. In a shower of sparks the fire jumped across a parking lot and ignited an explosion and fire next door.
The event was quite popular with the crowd, although some felt uncomfortable due to the realism and because of the “screamers.” There was some discussion of the viability of repeating the event this year, due to the size and concentration of the crowd and the availability of the building. With 3 weeks notice, however, a sponsor was found, and the fire reenactment was staged again in August 1994—but with a twist. The fire would be staged along the entire two-block length of the festival.
This years re-creation burned seven buildings with smaller fires of a few windows or floors each. Each side of each block was powered with a 24-dimmer rack interconnected to a controller via DMX cable strung between streetlight poles. Trusses and PAR- cans hung on streetlights provided a red flickering glow to all the buildings along both blocks. Thirty-six PAR-cans set along the sidewalk uplighted the historic building facades with rose- and amber-colored light. That effect, along with filtering the sides of the 80 existing streetlights with red stage gel, added to the festive mood before the fire We used more than 100 stage luminaires.
After an initial explosion in a building near the middle of the festival, the fire spread up and down the block with a series of coordinated lighting and pyrotechnic effects. Sparks from one explosion appeared to set off another explosion in a nearby building, effected by series of coordinated charges and devices called flying pigeons that shoot sparks as they travel along wires. When both blocks were ablaze from end to end, the fire climaxed with explosions above the entire street Amber uplights along the sidewalks flickered in counterpoint to the red glow and filled out the inferno effect.
After the fire, though, came the rebuilding. With that theme in mind the mood was lightened by dancing uplights on the buildings sequenced to music, along with robotic luminaires that bounced projections among the crowd and building facades. As a grand finale, white fountains of sparks shot up from 40 streetlight poles creating an arch of light along both blocks.
What started out as a rather crazy and impractical suggestion has apparently grown into an annual event, with discussion already underway about next year’s fire. For us the reenactment demonstrated the dramatic and emotional impact of light as an artistic medium. The Historic Third Ward Association and its sponsors gained exposure and a renewed appreciation of the area’s historic significance. For the crowd, the fire provided an exciting climax to the hottest party in town and a guilt-free chance to watch us burning down the block.
The author: Marty Peck‘s career began in the theater, teaching stage lighting while getting an electrical engineering degree He has designed more than 50 productions. Once engineering manager for a lighting fixture manufacturer, he holds a patent for the outdoor framing projector luminaire. As principal of Creative Lighting Design & Engineering, near Milwaukee. Mr. has developed expressive designs for a wide range of projects including museums and medical complexes, upscale residences and landscapes, retail and industrial complexes, dance clubs and theaters, and churches and festivals.