Fire at the Ringtheater

How the burning of a theatre led to a change in the way the doors of Vienna are opened

On The Town | Duncan J D Smith | July / August 2011

Vienna’s famous Ringstrasse, the imposing nineteenth century boulevard laid out on ground occupied formerly by the Renaissance city walls, is graced with many iconic buildings. One of the most interesting, however, is no longer standing. The Ringtheater at Schottenring 7, across from the Old Stock Exchange, was destroyed by fire in December 1881, dramatically altering this part of the Ring and prompting a much-needed overhaul of Viennese fire laws.


Babylon Burning

The earliest known law relating to fire is recorded in the Codex Hammurabi of c. 1760 BC. The great Babylonian law-maker legislated that anyone caught stealing from a burning house would be thrown onto the fire, too! Undoubtedly the law served to prevent theft but for laws pertaining to the prevention of fire one must turn to the Romans.

Following a serious conflagration in Rome in 6 BC the Emperor Augustus replaced the city’s existing fire brigade, which at the time was made up of slaves, with cohorts of freedmen known as vigiles. Equipped with buckets, water siphons, axes, and dousing blankets, it was the dawn of the fire service as we know it.

Meanwhile, far from Rome on the eastern border of the Empire, a fire brigade comprising military veterans was formed in 150 AD in Carnuntum, the capital of the Danube province of Pannonia. A similar force was deployed in the nearby legionary fortress of Vindobona (modern Vienna) in 220 AD, and it was just 30 years later that St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters, was born in the region that later became Austria.

A high-ranking officer in the Roman army, Florian was sentenced to death by burning after refusing an order to torch Christian properties. After taunting his executioners with boasts of how he would climb the flames to Heaven, he was instead drowned in the River Enns.


Austria’s First Fire Laws

With the fall of the Roman Empire, the art of fire prevention was lost in Central Europe until 1221, when the Babenberg Duke of Austria, Leopold VI, passed a law whereby a fine would be imposed on those whose houses caught fire, usually from soot-filled chimneys. With such a threat hanging over them, it is little wonder that Vienna’s citizens began viewing the appearance of the humble chimney sweep on their doorstep as a sign of good luck. This explains why a huge sculpted chimney sweep stands today outside the Lotto office on Wipplingerstrasse, and why tiny effigies of chimney sweeps are exchanged at New Year.

With the accession of the Habsburgs, further fire legislation was passed, and in 1686, two years after the Great Fire of London, Vienna’s first fire brigade was founded. And it was needed, since most houses were roofed with thatch or timber shingles.

What Vienna really needed, however, was a central fire station. During the early 18th century, the Baroque architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach voiced such a need, if only as a means of protecting his own work, although it was not until 1848, when Viennese citizens stormed the City Arsenal (Bürgerliches Zeughaus) Am Hof, that a fire station was opened there, and the Arsenal moved to a more secure location in Landstrasse. Today’s fire station extends into the adjacent Baroque palace, where a fascinating little museum contains a reconstruction of the fire-watch post that was installed in the spire of the Stephansdom from 1534 until 1956.


The Ringtheater Ignites

Vienna’s first steam-powered fire engine arrived in 1873 – but still many        Viennese buildings fell short in their fire prevention measures. The most notorious of these was the Ringtheater, an opera house and variety hall opened on Schottenring in 1874. The building’s small footprint necessitated that the architect build narrow and high – with disastrous consequences. On Dec. 8, 1881 a fire broke out on the stage shortly before a performance of Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Known thereafter as the Ringtheaterbrand, the fire gutted the building within a few hours killing 384 people in the process.

The cause of the fire remains a mystery, although it is known that the theatre’s safety curtain was not lowered. In the panic that followed the theatre’s telegraph system was not used to summon help nor were the stage water taps activated. The gas jets used to illuminate the theatre were turned off so as not to quicken the fire’s spread, but the emergency oil lighting in the narrow, windowless hallways remained inoperable after recent repair work. Plunged into darkness the terrified theatre-goers stumbled towards the main entrance on Schottenring. Here they became trapped, since at the time the doors of public buildings only opened inwards. Those that didn’t succumb to the flames consuming the theatre’s wooden and papier maché fittings were crushed against the doors by the crowd and quickly asphyxiated , and by 11.30pm only the shell of the building remained standing.


Phoenix from the Ashes

After the fire Vienna went into a period of deep mourning, and the theatre’s director Franz Jauner was thrown into prison for three months. Those who lost family were compensated and a house of atonement (Sühnhaus) was built on the site at the emperor’s expense, where it was used for charitable purposes (a new building now occupies the site and a wall plaque recalls the tragedy).

All that could be salvaged from the old theatre were several statues from the façade, which today adorn the Pötzleinsdorfer Schlosspark. The victims are recalled by a somber memorial in Group 30A of the Central Cemetery.

As a result of the tragedy, Vienna’s fire laws were considerably tightened, and thereafter emulated throughout Europe. In 1908 an article in the New York Times ("Why Should America Have So Many More Disastrous Fires Than Europe?") bemoaned the fact that the cities of the New World were suffering more fires a month than those of London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna together suffered in six months.

Regarding Vienna it stated "There is no case known in this city where a conflagration has extended beyond the building in which it originated, and even hardly any cases are known where a fire extended beyond the floor on which it originated. This is prevented by the solidity of the buildings, by strict fire regulations, and by a pretty well-trained Fire Department".

Most importantly, all exit doors now had to open outwards – food for thought when next one leaves a theatre in Vienna.


   Duncan J. D. Smith is the author of 

Only in Vienna,

Other articles from this issue