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Two Illinois Society Presidents Survive The LaSalle Hotel Fire of 1946

Two Illinois Society Presidents Survive The LaSalle Hotel Fire of 1946

The LaSalle Hotel was one of Chicago's finest hotels. It was owned by the father of future Supreme Court Justice John Paul Sevens who also owned the Stevens Hotel at 720 S. Michigan that for many years has been called the Hilton Hotel in modern times. The LaSalle hotel was located on the northwest corner of La Salle Street and Madison Street close to St. Peter's Church.

On June 5, 1946, two guests from Peoria in the hotel were Bill and Virginia Blake who would both serve as future presidents of the Illinois State Society of Washington, DC in 1964 and in 1976. Virginia told her story at an ISS annual meeting about that June night when a terrible fire broke out in the hotel that killed 61 people, many of them children. The fire began in the Silver Grill Cocktail Lounge on the lower floor on the La Salle Street side adjacent to the lobby before ascending stairwells and shafts. The fire started either in the walls or in the ceiling about 12:15 AM and spread through the highly-varnished wood paneling in the lounge and the mezzanine balcony. While a significant number died from flames, a greater number of deaths were caused by suffocation from the thick, black smoke. Virginia Blake recalled that she was expecting her next child and crawled along the bottom of the top floor to avoid the smoke with her small son Bill. "I was looking for an exit door when my little boy said, 'Don't worry Mommy, God will protect us.' and we found the door to make our way onto the roof and from there to the roof of another adjacent building." Around 900 guests were able to leave the building but some 150 had to be rescued by the fire services and by heroic members of the public, including two sailors who were reported to have rescued 27 people between them. A courageous hotel phone operator stayed at her post but perished. The fire resulted in the Chicago city council enacting new hotel building codes and fire-fighting procedures, including the installation of automatic alarm systems and instructions of fire safety inside the hotel rooms. Bill Blake also survived.

The hotel was refurbished after the fire and was finally demolished in July 1976, to be occupied by the Two North LaSalle office building. This skyscraper was completed on the site in 1979. In 2012, Virginia Blake has been a member of the Illinois State Society of Washington, DC for 50 years and at age 96 was still attending events of the society. She graduated from the University of Illinois in 1935. Her granddaughter Barbara Blake, the daughter of the little boy who promised that God would protect them, represented the Illinois State Society as the Illinois Cherry Blossom Princess in 1992 and she is now married with children of her own living in Iowa.

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