When fear and construction technology collided in the 19th century, a fireproof building boom was born. One Columbus building in particular got famous on the claim.

When fear and construction technology collided in the 19th century, a fireproof building boom was born. One Columbus building in particular got famous on the claim.

Is the Westin Columbus-originally called the Great Southern Fire Proof Hotel-really fireproof?

Wood has always been an important building material. Problem is, it burns. Some cities were built mostly of wood, with devastating fires common (think Chicago, 1871). Sure, we had brick and stone buildings, but their interior structures were almost always wood. Fire was a constant fear, especially in high-occupancy buildings like hotels.

In the late 19th century, iron and steel, and later concrete, changed building technology. Playing on the fear of fire, businesses often advertised their buildings as "fireproof" because they contained no wood components. This played out in Columbus, where the 1893 Chittenden Hotel fire on North High Street got everyone's attention. When German businessmen planned a major hotel on South High, they made it as fireproof as possible. The Mount Vernon Bridge Company built the steel frame, and the building contained all nonflammable materials.

Of course, the stuff in a fireproof building still can burn. The poster child for this was Chicago's McCormick Place, which was destroyed in a massive 1967 fire. The building itself was built of fireproof materials, but the housewares show inside wasn't.

So, yes, in the context of 1897, the Great Southern was pretty much fireproof. Be assured, though, that the Westin Great Southern today truly is a safe, modern building. Fire protection technology has come a long way: Hotels now have fire, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, sprinklers, nonflammable and fire-resistant furnishings, and secure escape routes. That old lobby plaque celebrating the Great Southern Fire Proof Hotel is truer today than ever.

Jeff Darbee is a preservationist, historian and author in Columbus. Send your questions to cityquotient@columbusmonthly.com, and the answer might appear in a future column.