The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XXXI

There was a stir among the reporters gathered in the little room where the coroner's inquest on the Glenmore fire was being held, when it became known that the architect was present and was to be examined. Graves's man, Gotz, the president of the hotel company, had finished his testimony on the previous day, having displayed a marvellous capacity for ignorance. Under advice from his employer's lawyer he had refused to answer every important question put to him, on the plea that it was irrelevant. The coroner had been scarcely more successful with other witnesses in his endeavors to determine the exact causes for the large loss of life in the new hotel, and his inquest was closing in failure. The yelping pack of newspapers had already raised their cry in another field; public interest in the Glenmore disaster had begun to wane; and it was generally believed that nothing would come of the inquest, not even a hearing before the Grand Jury. The whole affair appeared to be but another instance of the impotence of our system of government in getting at the real offenders against society, if they are cunning and powerful.

That morning, as the Harts were preparing to go to the hearing the doctor had called to see little Powers, for the child's feverish cold threatened to develop into pneumonia. After the doctor had gone, the architect went upstairs to the sickroom, where Helen was seated on the bed playing with Powers, and trying to soothe him. As he stood there silently watching them, he was tormented by a sudden fear, a terrible presentiment, that the child was to die, and thus he was to pay for his sins, and not only he, but Helen. She was to pay with him, even more than he! He tried to rid himself of the hysterical and foolish idea, but it persisted, prompted by that rough sense of retribution—an acknowledgment of supreme justice—that most men retain all their lives.

"I shall have to go now," he said to her at last. "But you mustn't think of coming. You must stay with the boy."

"Oh, no!" Helen exclaimed quickly, looking closely at the child. "The doctor says there is nothing to fear yet. Everything has been done that I can do, and your mother will stay with him while we are away. It won't be long, anyway!"

"Why do you insist upon coming?" he protested almost irritably. "It won't be exactly pleasant, and you may have to hang around there for hours."

"Don't you want me to go with you, and be there, Francis?" she asked a little sadly.

He made no reply, feeling ashamed to confess that it would make the coming scene all the more painful to know that she was hearing again in all its repulsive detail the story of his participation in the criminal construction of the Glenmore hotel.

"I think I had better go," she said finally, "and I want to go!"

She wished to be near him at the end, after he had performed this difficult act; to be near him when he came out from the hearing and walked home with the knowledge of the public disgrace preparing for him at the hands of the hungry reporters. Then, she divined, would come upon him the full bitterness of his position.

The hearing proceeded slowly, and it was the middle of the afternoon before the architect was called. The coroner, a grizzled little German-American with an important manner, put on his spectacles to examine the new witness, and the members of the coroner's jury, who knew that the architect had left the city immediately after the fire and were surprised at his return, evinced their curiosity by leaning forward and staring at Hart.

The first questions put to him were directed toward gaining information about the corporation that owned the building. As Mr. Hart was the treasurer of the Glenmore company, presumably he held stock in the corporation? A large amount? No, he had had some stock, but had disposed of it. Recently? Some time ago. To whom? The witness refused to answer. Had he paid cash for his stock? The witness refused to answer: he had been told by his lawyer that all such questions were not pertinent to the present inquiry. But who, then, were the chief stockholders? who were, in fact, the Glenmore company? Again the architect refused to answer; indeed, he was not sure that he knew. The coroner, baffled on this line, and knowing well enough in a general way at least from previous witnesses that nothing was to be unearthed here, turned to more vital matters.

"Mr. Hart," he said, clearing his throat and looking gravely at the witness, "I understand that you were the architect for this hotel?"


"You drew the plans and specifications for the Glenmore?"

"Yes, they were prepared in my office."

"Were they the same that you see here?"

The coroner motioned toward the roll of plans that had been taken from the files of the Building Department.

"Yes," the architect answered readily, merely glancing at the plans, "those were the plans for the hotel as originally prepared by me."

"Now I want to ask if the Glenmore hotel was built according to these plans?"

The architect hesitated. Every one in the room knew well enough by this time that the building destroyed by fire had not been erected according to these plans, but, nevertheless, they waited eagerly for the reply.

"Few buildings," Hart began explanatorily, "are completed in all respects according to the original plans and specifications."

"Ah, is that so?"

"But these plans were very considerably altered," the witness continued voluntarily.

"By whom? By you? With your consent, your approval?"

The architect hesitated again for a few moments, and then answered rapidly:—

"With my knowledge, certainly; yes, you may say with my consent!"

There was a little delay in the inquiry at this point, while the coroner consulted with his counsel as to the next questions that should be addressed to the witness. The architect gazed doggedly before him, keeping his eyes on the dirty window above the heads of the jury. In the dingy light of the little room, his face appeared yellow and old. His mouth twitched occasionally beneath his mustache, but otherwise he stood with composure waiting for the next question, which he knew would pierce to the heart of the matter.

"Mr. Hart," the coroner resumed, "will you describe to us what those alterations in the plans for the Glenmore were, what was the nature of them?"

The witness considered how he was to answer the question, and then he proceeded to explain the most important discrepancies between the building as it had been erected by Graves and the plans that had been filed with the Building Department. He described the use of the old walls and foundations, the reduction in the thickness of the bearing-walls and partitions, the chief substitutions of wood for steel in the upper stories, the omitting of fireproof partitions and fire-escapes, etc.,—in short, all the methods of "skinning" the construction, in which the contractor was such an adept. He referred from time to time to the plans, and used technical terms, which he was asked to explain. But the jury listened with absorbed interest, and he kept on until he had answered the question thoroughly.

"As an architect," the coroner asked, when Hart had completed his explanation, "will you state whether, in your judgment, these changes that you have described, especially the substitution of inflammable material for fireproofing and the weakening of the main walls, were sufficient to account for the great loss of life in the fire?"

The answer to such a question could be only speculative,—an individual opinion,—and the witness might properly refuse to commit himself. The architect hesitated, and then with a quick motion of the head, as if he were sick of evasions, said:—

"There are a good many buildings here in Chicago and in other large cities that are no safer than the Glenmore was. But if you want my opinion, I will say that such alterations as I have indicated tended to weaken the walls, and in other ways to bring the building below the danger limit."

"It was what might be called a fire-trap, then?"

"I did not say that!"

Feeling that at last he had found an easy witness, the coroner began to bully, and there ensued a wrangle between him and the architect, in which both men became heated.

"Well, Mr. Hart," a member of the jury finally interposed with a question, "can you say that the Glenmore as it was built conformed to the building ordinances of the city of Chicago?"

"It would take a number of experts and a good lawyer to interpret those ordinances!" the architect answered testily. "I should say that they were drawn for the express purpose of being violated."

There was a laugh along the reporters' bench at this retort. But the witness quickly added in his former contained manner:—

"No, the Glenmore violated the ordinances in a number of important particulars."

There was a sudden hush in the room. This point had been established before by different persons who had been examined. Nevertheless, the admission coming from the architect of the ill-fated building was an important point. It might lead to other interesting admissions.

"You were aware, then, when the Glenmore was being erected that it violated the ordinances?"


"Did you make any protest?"


"Did you know when you undertook the plans that the hotel was to be built in this manner?"

"I knew that it was to be put up for a certain sum, and that a first-class fire-proof building conforming to the ordinances could not be built for that money."

A number of questions followed in regard to the actual cost of the hotel and the connection of the Graves Construction Company with the owners of the building, many of which the architect refused to answer. At last the coroner returned to the one point on which he had been successful in eliciting vital information,—the character of the burned building, and the circumstances of its construction.

"I suppose the building was inspected during the construction?"


"By whom?"

"As usual, by different inspectors from the building department. Mr. Murphy was there several times, I remember, and Mr. Lagrange, among others. But I think chiefly Mr. Murphy."

"Were you present during their inspection?"

"Not always."

"Did either of these gentlemen find anything to object to in the method of construction?"

"I never heard of any objection. Nothing was ever said to me. The inspectors might have talked to the contractors. But I don't think any one of them did."

"Have you reason to believe that there was any collusion between the inspectors and the Graves Company?"

Every one in the room knew that there must have been collusion. Nevertheless, the architect, after hesitation, said:—

"I shan't answer that, sir."

"You refuse to reply?"

"See here, Mr. Coroner! I am here to tell you what I know about the Glenmore,—at least so far as it concerns my own responsibility, my own work. But I am not here to testify against the Graves Construction Company. Understand that!"

"Well, I should say that you and the Graves Company were pretty well mixed in this matter. You were an officer of the corporation which employed the Graves Company to build a hotel on your plans. Could there be any closer connection than that, do you think?"

To this observation Hart made no reply, and finally the member of the jury who had interposed before put another question to the witness:—

"You have told us that the Glenmore was not properly built, was not what it pretended to be, a fire-proof building, and generally violated the ordinance for that class of building. Do you consider yourself in any way responsible for those violations?"

"Yes," the architect replied slowly, "I suppose so. At least I knew all about it!"

"You considered it a dangerous building?"

"I can't say that I did. I should consider it so now. I didn't think much about it then."

The witness's admission came with evident effort; the juryman continued insinuatingly:—

"Mr. Hart, I believe that you were present at the fire?"


"Did you then believe that if the hotel had been built according to these plans"—he pointed to the roll of blue prints on the table—"the large loss of life would not have occurred?"

"I felt so,—yes, I believe so now!"

"May I ask one more question? Was it for your interest to make these changes? Did you make any money out of the job beyond your customary commission?"

It was a question that the witness might properly refuse to answer as having no direct bearing on the object of the inquest. But the architect was weary of quibbles,—indeed, eager to make his testimony as thorough as might be, and to have it over.

"Not directly, but I was an officer of the company, and beside—"

"Indirectly, then, you benefited?"

"Yes, indirectly."

"That is all, Mr. Hart."

A few more questions were asked by the coroner about the inspection of the building by Murphy and Lagrange, and also in regard to the architect's previous relations with the Graves Company. Then the witness was excused.

When the architect stepped back into the room, he saw Wheeler sitting beside Helen in the rear. They waited for him at the door, and together the three went out to the street. The lawyer, who had reached the hearing in time for most of the testimony, smiled rather grimly as he remarked to his cousin:—

"Well, Jack, you gave them about everything they were after! You needn't have turned yourself quite inside out."

"It was perfect!" Helen exclaimed, taking her husband's arm. "Everything you said was right. I wouldn't have had you change a word."

Wheeler buttoned his coat against the east wind and smiled tolerantly at the woman's fervor.

"Will that be all, Everett?" she asked a little defiantly.

"For the present," he replied after a pause, and then he nodded good-by.

"What did he mean?" she asked her husband, as they threaded the crowded street leading to the North Side bridge.

"That they will hold me to the Grand Jury, I suppose."

Her hand which clasped his arm tightened involuntarily at the words, and they continued their way silently to the old Ohio Street house.


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