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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 359-361

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Book Review

The Fireproof Building: Technology and Public Safety in the Nineteenth-Century American City

The Fireproof Building: Technology and Public Safety in the Nineteenth-Century American City. By Sara E. Wermiel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. Pp. viii+301. $45.

Raise your hand if you regularly examine the escape routes posted on the doors of hotel rooms. Probably not many hands went up. As Sara Wermiel concludes in her admirably researched book, the "infrastructure of safety" composed of laws and technology is now largely invisible. The horror of devastating factory fires and urban conflagrations is remote to most of us. But this distance from awful loss of life, heat-fused glass, twisted metal columns, and heaps that were once brick walls has not always been the case.

Wermiel describes the building techniques and codes that now make urban buildings relatively safe places to work. Clearly and readably, she summarizes and analyzes the fascinating array of documents she consulted to construct her history of fire-resistive buildings in the United States. She makes the case that the federal government fostered innovation in fireproof construction technology and that state and local governments spurred the passage of regulations that enhanced building safety. Along the way, she introduces the reader to movers and shakers in business, architecture, engineering, and public life. In thoroughly examining the technological and legal aspects of fireproof construction, Wermiel's work illuminates the history of architecture, engineering, business, and insurance, and American social history as well.

Wermiel divides her book into six chapters: solid masonry building (1790-1840); iron-and-brick construction (1840-60); experimentation (1860s-80s); the transfer of fire-protective methods of mill construction to other sorts of buildings; skyscrapers; and the introduction of effective fire exits. Throughout, she treats fireproof construction as a system involving water supply, fire-fighting equipment, and local building codes as well as construction methods. Given that stone buildings were expensive and almost unavoidably monumental, Wermiel notes the importance of government patronage for masonry-vaulted construction of customhouses and courthouses in the first half of the nineteenth century. Then, after discussing [End Page 359] the British background to iron-and-brick fireproof systems, she traces the shift away from stone-vaulted buildings in the United States to the more flexible and inexpensive but often misunderstood methods of iron-and-brick construction. Again, the government played an important role: "Through its large and steady demand for structural iron, the Treasury Department encouraged the development of the structural metal industry" (p. 65). With all this building activity, the increasingly self-conscious professions of architect, engineer, and building contractor began sharing information.

New to me was Wermiel's history of the fire insurance industry. Her able discussion of the rise of mutual fire insurance companies, in contrast to stock fire insurance companies, shows the complex connections among financial incentives, technical know-how, laws, and moral climate. For example, semiautomatic sprinklers appeared in New England mills early on, but were installed in nonindustrial settings only after the passage of laws requiring them. Tall building construction gave a boost to fireproof systems. Wermiel does not discount other approaches to skyscraper history, but her analysis adds to our understanding of the importance of urban high-rise construction.

The primary aim of fireproof construction in the nineteenth century was to protect property. Wermiel notes the human losses in the many fires she discusses, but not until the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City in 1911--in a ten-story "skyscraper factory"--did the attention of builders begin to focus on the safety of occupants. In a final chapter, then, Wermiel addresses the matter of adequate egress, noting that housing reformers, social welfare activists, and some architects had long clamored for safe exits.

Wermiel relies on primary documentation almost exclusively and thus, to a degree, loses sight of a larger picture. Key nineteenth-century authors such as William J. Fryer Jr. and Joseph K. Freitag are cited repeatedly, but there is no engagement with...


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