WICKER PARK — Firefighters were forced to crush century-old wood and marble to put out a small fire that started in the wall of an 1880s-era building in Wicker Park's busy shopping strip Monday.
Juan Hernandez, a spokesman for the Chicago Fire Department, said they believe a discarded cigarette butt caused the fire in the exterior wall of a building at 1401 N. Milwaukee Ave. around 3:45 p.m. Monday.
Initially thinking firefighters were responding to a call about smoke coming from a basement, Hernandez said it became apparent that the smoke was emitting from a portion of the wall not connected to the basement.
"There was no smoke in the basement; there was smoke coming out of the wall," Hernandez said. "They had to break some marble to get access to the fire before it got out of hand."
Like many buildings in Wicker Park's historic district, the building at the northeast corner of Wood Street and Milwaukee Avenue used to be lower to the ground because the street was eight feet below its current level before the city was rebuilt after the Chicago Fire in 1871, Hernandez said.
The three-story building which spans 1401-11 N. Milwaukee Ave. was constructed in the 1880s, and the storefronts facing Milwaukee Avenue were built in 1926, according to a 2007 report by the city's Department of Planning and Development, which lists the building as "contributing" to the Milwaukee Avenue Landmark District.
The upper levels of the building have remained boarded up since a fire in 1977 that killed five adults and four children.
The blaze had started in the back stairs of a third-floor apartment shortly after midnight on New Year's Day. All of the victims were related and had been at a party hosted by a 54-year-old woman who died in the blaze as well.
Six of the victims were found on the third floor of the building while three were found in the rubble, and eight others escaped the blaze by climbing onto a sign that was affixed to the building with chains, according to a front page Tribune report from Jan. 2, 1977.
The blaze left a half dozen families homeless and caused damage to three storefronts: a coin-operated laundry, and a furniture and clothing shop.
Today, the occupants of the 1401-11 N. Milwaukee Ave. building are Free People, Floyd's Barbershop and Spex eyewear.
Hernandez added that Monday's fire "never expanded into a working fire, and was put out with hand pumps."
A worker who declined to give her name from Free People, which operates a warehouse showroom in the vintage storefront, said Monday she's "happy everyone is safe."
"We are still trying to finish dealing with it, just had cleaning people come," the worker said.
Free People moved into the storefront about five years ago, after Imperial Men's Clothing moved out after 103 years on the street.
Though Hernandez said the fire department is "not investigating at this point", he said the building does warrant further inspection.
"These types of buildings have had horrific fires in the past. At this point they are saying it was due to a discarded cigarette, but we would like to do a hazard assessment of the building," Hernandez said.