Then and Now: Couch Place
Couch Place, "Chicago's Greenest Alley" and the host of our upcoming event, ACTIVATE, is at first glance a pleasant, innocent thoroughfare between State and Dearborn Streets. But a quick look back in time reveals a checkered past for Couch Place, due to one of the worst single building fires in American history at the neighboring Iroquois Theatre. Read on to find out why some visitors to Couch Place claim to this day that the alley may be haunted.
Couch Place Alley was named for Ira and James Couch, two brothers who owned the original Tremont Hotel at the corner of Lake and Dearborn Streets from 1850 to 1871 (now an InterPark garage). The hotel, though not long standing, often hosted Abraham Lincoln when he came to Chicago.
The alley is old, but its first real claim to fame came early in the 20th century with a terrible tragedy: the Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903. The Iroquois Theatre was constructed that same year, located next to the Oriental's current location. On December 30th, a large audience, well over theatre capacity, gathered to witness a popular musical, Mr. Bluebeard.
What happened next was one of the worst single building fires in all of American history. A stage light shorted and sparked during a moonlight scene, catching the nearby curtain on fire. This was actually a common occurrence back then, but the stagehands were unable to extinguish it quickly enough and the flame spread, causing them to let down the asbestos-based “fire curtain." The curtain, however, failed to deploy, and, as it turns out, would not have worked anyway. People panicked and raced to the exit, but due to egregious oversights and shortcuts by the building owners, over 600 people perished in that fire.
Local carpenters hastily hammered together wooden planks in attempt to complete the unfinished fire escape
One gross oversight in particular was the unfinished fire escapes hanging over Couch Place Alley. Many people jumped to avoid the fire. Hence from 1903 on, Couch Place Alley was widely believed haunted by their ghosts or spirits, still wandering the site of that tragic event.
Today, however, Couch Place has undergone remarkable change. For one thing, according to the city of Chicago, the alley is technically a street since it’s so wide. And, contrary to its former stigma as haunted, Couch Place is now well-lit, clean, and lined with framed posters for performances in the Chicago Theatre District:
Another slight change for Couch Place is in its identity: you may have noted that Couch Place also bears the identity of “James M. Nederlander Way.” Nederlander, or “Jimmy Sr.,” is known these days as the last surviving patriarch of Broadway Theatre—after over 70 years in the theatre business (started at 7 years old!), Jimmy has accumulated an incredible nine theatres on Broadway and is the founder of Broadway In Chicago that presents Broadway shows in 5 theatres in Chicago.
But perhaps the biggest change to Couch Place Alley was its renovation in 2007 into “Chicago’s Greenest Alley.” The brackets that hold the light fixtures are made from recycled aluminum. The cobbles are permeable, so when it rains the water runs between them and into the ground, rather than into the city’s storm sewer system. Even the sign on the wall explaining the greenness of the alley is made from recycled materials.
In sum, Couch Place is now a walker’s paradise, perhaps haunted by a checkered past. And while we should never forget the tragedy that befell that day, December 30th, 1903, we can certainly make September 12th, 2013 a better one to remember.