May 22: Cold War era terrorism in a Belle Époque shop
2012/05/22 § Leave a comment
On this day in 1967 L’ Innovation department store burned.
The Brussels department store was designed by hometown hero Victor Horta (1861-1947), who basically invented Art Nouveau architecture. Horta’s department store was built like so many of these palaces of retail recreation: tiers of departments, stuffed with stuff, surrounded a central atrium topped by a skylight. The iron structure replete with Horta’s characteristic whiplash curves framed a luxurious, modern, deadly design that allowed the fire–whether it was accidentally begun or purposefully set–to spread through the open plan, rapidly leaping from ladies’ crinolines and gentlemen’s cravats to wooden children’s toys and bolts of silk. Approximately 1,000 people were in the store; only about half made it out unscathed. 323 people died, most of them women and children, the demographic you’d expect to find in a department store at midday.
Many massive structure fires are the result of simple dumb luck and bad choices; some (the Triangle Fire comes to mind) have significant sociological undertones. This one in Brussels also had the stink of something worse than simple, if tragic, human error. In the midst of Cold War protests, political radicals had protested the “American” goods that filled the display windows at L’Innovation in May, 1967. What began as just a retail display of blue jeans turned into a target of anti-American anger; picketing and pamphlets, threats of worse violence circulated in front of the shop in the days leading up to the blaze. It is possible that the fire was the result of malfunctioning wiring; it is likely it was something much worse; either way, it remains the most catastrophic in Belgian history.
Image: L’Innovation in the year of its opening, 1903 (from this source)