Gulf Hotel Fire – September 7, 1943

City in Ruins

Fifty-five men, many of them elderly and living off government relief, died in the early morning of September 7, 1943 in the worst hotel fire in Houston, Texas history.

The Coshocton Tribune, 07 Sep 1943, Tue, Page 1

The Coshocton Tribune,  September 7. 1943

The fire started around 12:10 a.m. the front desk clerk was alerted to a problem on the second floor. A lit cigarette inadvertently caused a mattress to begin smoldering. Several guests of the hotel aided the clerk in extinguishing the small fire. The mattress, thought to be completely fine, was moved to a closet in a hallway on the second floor. Minutes later the mattress burst in flames and the fire spread quickly throughout the second floor and moved its way toward the third.

The old hotel only had two emergency exits, both on one side of the building and the flames blocked one of those exits and an interior stairwell became engulfed leaving many of the 133 guests trapped.

The fire department was located near the hotel and received the alarm at 12:50am. By the time they arrived on the scene the building was engulfed in flames. The fire tore through the old building quickly and burned so hot that the fire department could not place ladders against the building to help people escape.

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The aged men struggled to get out of the building. Many we able to slowly escape from the one working escape, but for many the situation became dire. Unable to leave through an exit many resorted to extreme measures. Two men jumped out the window, one man was killed trying to climb down the building by a burning window falling on him and many just stayed in their room and hope the flames would not reach them.

By the time the fire was extinguished, fifty-five men were dead. 38 men were burned to death, 15 died of smoke inhalation and the two men who jumped to their death.

The Gulf Hotel is a common story – an old building, not up to code, holding too many people without proper exits and no sprinkler system. Many of the lessons that could have been learned by the conflagration were ignored or completely forgotten. The Gulf Hotel fire was the biggest fire of 1943 (Cocoanut Grove) or even the biggest story in the newspapers that day. World War II raged on and a train wreck in Pennsylvania killed 79 people and injured 117.

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The St. Louis Star and Times,  07 Sep 1943

 

Hope To Get as Brown as a Berry

Cardboard America, Cardboard Greetings

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Mailed from Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania to Mr. Dan L. Mohnkern of Oil City, Pennsylvania on August 26, 1952:

Dear Dan,
Having a swell time. We are staying at the Lakeside, and the food is wonderful.
The swimming is good but the water is quite chilly. There are many sail boats here, and one which we would like to ride.
I’m quite red now and hope to get as brown as a berry.
We’ve met many fine folks here, and the music and play programs are good. Will see you before too long. Sincerely, Chet.

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The Burning of the Iroquois Hotel – Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan

Cardboard America, Cardboard Greetings, City in Ruins

CITY IN RUINS

WHAT: Hotel Fire
WHEN: March 12, 1907
WHERE: Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan
CASUALTIES: Zero. The hotel was totally destroyed

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While not a fire that resulted in any loss of life, the Iroquois Hotel fire of 1907 is fascinating to me. The postcard above was mailed the very same day that the hotel burned to the ground.

This 1905 Detroit Publishing Company postcard was one of the catalysts for starting the City in Ruins project. The message is simple but gives the date and mentions the fact that the hotel burned that morning.

The postcard was mailed from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan  to Miss Nina Jenks, Chicago, Illinois on March 12, 1907:

Dear Nina,
This hotel burnt to the ground this morning.
Corrine Armstrong

As mentioned in the article posted, this was the second fire at that exact site. Nine years earlier a hotel at that site was destroyed and G.D. Welton, the manager, narrowly escaped with his life.

The new hotel, dubbed the Iroquois was erected at a cost of $60,000 with $40,000 in furnishings.

The fire in the Iroquois started in a sample room; caused by a coal explosion in a fireplace. The flames burned for five hours and destroyed a residence next door.

All twenty-five guests escaped the building quickly, leaving all their possessions behind. Luckily, it was the off-season and the hotel was not full or the damage and danger would have increased exponentially.

The firemen putting out the blaze were unable to fight the flames as both the water main and the hydrants were frozen solid. They had to basically wait for the fire to die down in its own and spray it with what little water they had available.

There were no injuries or casualties but the loss was total. I don’t believe another hotel was built on that site.

 

 

 

 

I was able to find a 1907 insurance claim after the conflagration. These were the final results.

 

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The Newhall House Fire – Milwaukee, Wisconsin

City in Ruins, Uncategorized

WHAT: Hotel fire
WHEN: January 10, 1883
WHERE: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
FATALITIES: At least 74, maybe as many as 90

Chicago Daily Tribune – January 11, 1883

The Newhall House was built by a group led buy Daniel Newhall. It was opened to the public on August 26th, 1857. The building was made of Milwaukee Brick and occupied the corner Broadway and Michigan Streets in downtown Milwaukee.

The largest and finest hotel in the West had already narrowly escaped disaster. On February 14, 1863, a blaze broke out in a room occupied by a newly-married couple, and before it was extinguished nine apartments were lost.

Newhall House

The Newhall House as it looked in the late 1860s. Photo courtesy of Jeff Beutner.

On the morning of January 10, 1883 disaster struck. At around 4am fire was discovered and in less than 30 minutes the entire building was destroyed by fire. The fire started in the elevator shaft and spread very quickly through the wooden and brick building.

The Newhall House had long been considered a hazard by the Milwaukee Fire Department due to its poor management, construction, ventilation and lack of exits.

Unfortunately for those that perished, the were no laws/ordinances to force the Newhall to make the changes that may have spared lives.

Further Particulars of the Terrible Calamity

The scene on the morning of January 10th was pure chaos and pandemonium.

The Reno Evening Gazette from later that day describes the scene with colorful details common to newspapers at the time.

The burning of the Newhall House at Milwaukee this morning…is another terrible illustration of not providing efficient means of exit to public building. Over 60 human being were roasted alive in that death box, and many of the victims, too, in full view of the vast multitude standing in the street below, unable to succor the perishing mortals. The thought is too horrifying to realize. The reports received refer to the the building as a “death trap,” and it seems public attention had been called to the unsafe conditioning of the building in case hast exit should ever become necessary, still nothing was done to remedy the fault. Cannot some law be passed compelling the owners of public buildings to properly protect those who must visit them?

Note – The call for more exits and safety will become a common theme for fires/disasters featured on City in Ruins.

The fire spread with such fearful rapidity that it was not in the power of man to save the building, and it is a marvel that the skill and bravery of the firemen were able to confine that sea of flame within the blackened walls of the hotel.

The valuable buildings and the wealth of merchandise now in the block of that ill-fated house are indebted for their preservation to the well-directed and fearless work of the Fire Department. The Police were equally prompt in responding to the first call, and they braved every danger in the discharge of their duty.

The fire killed at least 74 and as many as 90. 48 victims remained unidentified.Several hundred people were hurt. The registry for the hotel was destroyed in the fire so the number varies on how many guests were in the hotel that night. Estimates put it at around 800.

The dead were memorialized with a monument in Forest Home Cemetery.

Some Guests Saved

General Tom Thumb, of P.T. Barnum circus fame, and his wife were guests of the Newhall House that fateful night. They were ultimately rescued from the sixth floor by a firefighter named O’Brien. O’Brien managed to get a fire ladder up to their floor and held the tiny couple under one arm while holding his swaying ladder with the other. Tom Thumb would pass away 6 months later. His death was not related to the fire. Approximately 12 to 15 other people were saved.

Reno Evening Gazette – January 10, 1883

Only a few walls remain of the Newhall House. Photo courtesy of Jeff Beutner.


Ruins of the Newhall House a few hours later – January 10, 1883. Note the telegraph poles.  Image courtesy of Jeff Beutner.

The Inquest

On January 23rd. an inquest of the dead began in the Municipal Court of Milwaukee City Hall. Details were discussed in length and interviews were conducted with witnesses. Thirteen days after the trial began, the jury, consisting of: a builder, 2 contractors, a clergyman, a railroad employee, and a merchant came back with these findings:

  • The Newhall was set on fire by a person or persons unknown
  • There was only one night watchman at the time and he was unable to attend to his proper duties, as there should have been at least 2 or 3 watchmen
  • The watchman and the night clerk, obeying previous instructions by the proprietors, lost valuable time trying to put out the fire and neglects to wake up the patrons of the hotel
  • When they finally did try to awaken people the halls were filled with so much smoke that they decided to save themselves
  • The Newhall was devoid of proper exits. There were escape ladders on the northeast and southeast corners, and a bridge near the southwest corner leading across the alley, an inside servants’ stairway from the fifth story to the basement, and two large open stairways in the front corridors leading from the office floor to the sixth floor, with an open ladder to the roof. That was not nearly enough for a hotel that size.
  • The owners were incredibly negligent – knowing that fires had taken place in the hotel – by not having more exits.
  • The Fire Department did their duty as well as could be expected, but could have done much more had the ladder trucks been fully manned and equipped with the best extension ladders and the men well drilled to handle them.
  • Telegraph poles and wires caused serious obstruction to the Fire Department by preventing them from using their ladders in a speedy and efficient manner.

Special thanks to archive.org for digitizing “Burning of the Newhall house,” which provided those great details.

The Trial

A man named George Scheller was charged with setting the fire. The trial was held in April of 1883 and Schiller was acquitted on all charges. An editorial in Green Bay Weekly Gazette blamed Schiller’s charge on living “fast.”

Green Bay Weekly Gazette, April 21, 1883

No one was ever convicted of starting the Newhall House fire.

Detroit Free-Press, December 31, 1994

The Newhall fire started getting cities to realize that having low hanging telegraph wires was a danger and putting them underground may spare precious minutes in an incident such as this. It also would to help ease the blight of burgeoning downtowns.

The Detroit Free-Press ran a brief editorial on December 31, 1884 that called for their removal in the upcoming year.

Milwaukee and other major cities would removed those poles over the next few years.

Marlborough Hotel Fire – January 3, 1940

City in Ruins, Uncategorized

On the incredibly cold morning of January 3, 1940, just before dawn, a fire caused by a lit cigarette thrown down a garbage chute ravaged the Marlborough Apartment Hotel in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The cigarette has probably been smoldering for hours before finally catching fire and eventually blew out of the garbage chute, causing a heat explosion to tear through the building. The fire would be the deadliest in the city’s history with nineteen people and one puppy having lost their life on that cold January morning.

The Marlborough hotel was located on the southern edge of downtown Minneapolis at the corner of Third Avenue South and Fifteenth Street. The fairly small three-story building had opened in 1895 and had never had many problems. The hotel had been inspected many times had no violations on record.

At around 5:45 am, the hotel’s janitor, Otto Knaack was in the basement and heard an explosion. Knaack would tell local reporters of the events:

“When I opened the door, something tossed me back into the areaway in the basement. All the windows in the boiler room were blown out. I got up and went to get my wife and my baby out of our apartment. Then, I went up to the first floor to get my daughter and her roommate out of their rooms. By the time I roused them, the first floor was burning so fiercely we couldn’t get out. We had to jump to the ground 6 feet below. The whole place seemed to go up in flames suddenly.”

More than two-thirds of the city’s fire department arrived at the fire, but not as quickly as they would have liked. Hampered by temperatures near zero degree along with snow and ice, when the fire department arrived on the scene the hotel was already engulfed in flames.

The Monroe News-Star – January 4, 1940

As flames scorched the hotel, the guests numbering at least 115 began to panic. Some on the lower floors were able to escape through their windows, other managed to make it to a stairwell and make it to the frozen street below. However, 19 souls were not so lucky.

Witnesses would later say that heard screams emanating from the trapped people inside the hotel. They would also report that as they could see people on the second and third floors smashes windows with shoes, chairs, even their bare hands in a frantic effort to flee the flames. One man on the third floor was seen pushing his wife out of the window, right before he jumped to the pavement below. She died, he survived.

A local cab driver named Henry Kadlac happened to be passing by the Marlborough when the conflagration erupted. Instead of watching, mouth agape like many other, Kadlac sprung in to action. Kadlac stood outside windows and caught children that were thrown out of the upper floor windows by their parents. He would be hailed a hero.

Firemen struggled with the fire, the elements and with the terrified victims of the fire.The cold weather had cause many of the hoses to freeze, slowing the effort. The ladders for the upper floors quickly became iced over with the cold water being sprayed on the flames, making them dangerous. One fireman and a hysterical guest were seriously injured when the guest panicked and struggled to get free causing them both to slip and fall two floors from the frozen ladder.

Minneapolis Firefighters trying to move a Hennepin County Morgue truck after bei

Minneapolis Firefighters trying to move an iced-in County Morgue truck during the fire at the Marlborough Hotel. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society/Star Tribune

By the time the fire was officially put out, 19 people had died and over 50 had been injured. The guests that escaped without injury had to endure the weather with little to no preparation. Firemen would provide blankets to those lucky enough to almost freeze to death.

The hotel was completely destroyed and would never be rebuilt. The wooden interior along with highly flammable curtains caused the old hotel to ignite quickly and destroy everything in its path. Had the temperature outside been warmer the disaster inside could have been much worse.

Oliver Hotel – South Bend, Indiana

Cardboard America, Close Cover, Uncategorized

The Best and Most Magnificent Hotel in Indiana, one of the finest in the United States, and the Best In Any City of 40,000 Inhabitants in the World.

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Early 1900s postcard.

James Oliver, one of America’s most influential inventors and industrialists was born on August 28, 1823, to George Oliver, a shepherd, and Elizabeth Irving, his wife, in the small village of Newcastleton, Scotland.

At this time, James continued to experiment with ways to produce a better plow and in 1857 he obtained his first patent from the U.S. Government entitled “Improvement in Chilling Plow Shares.” It covered James’ new way to process a plow point, or share, to an extremely hard surface. This first improvement made way for the many more patents that were to follow as the Oliver Plow became the most popular plow in the world.

Fort Wayne Weekly Journal-Gazette – March 15, 1900

In 1864 the company sold approximately 1,000 plows. With the Civil War in progress prices continued to rise as demands for production increased. The company also made 70 iron columns to hold up the Golden Dome structure in the University of Notre Dame’s Main Building. The Oliver company was expanding and growing and by mid-1865 the staff was increased to plant capacity. At this time, J.D. Oliver, James’ son, was getting in on the company’s ground floor.

In the late 1880s, Oliver plows were being shipped all over the world, and businessmen from every corner of the globe were coming to South Bend to negotiate deals. Finding the hotels in South Bend at the time insufficient for the level of visitor coming to town, the Olivers decided to build an opulent and grand hotel.

Plans were set in motion in the early 1890s, but the Olivers had difficulty purchasing the land in downtown needed to build such a palace.After years of finagling, an entire city block was purchased at the corner of Main and Washington streets.

The architectural firm of Rutan, Shepley and Coolidge began construction on the six-story palace to be known as the Oliver Hotel began in the summer of 1898. Originally slated to open Thanksgiving, 1898, the grand opening didn’t not occur until December 20, 1899. Over 4,000 invitations were sent for the gala. The attendees were a mixture of area businessmen, politics and social elites such as the Studebakers and Olivers.

The town was so impressed with the hotel and all of the philanthropic work that James Oliver had provided South Bend that, in June 1900, he was presented with “The Oliver Loving Cup” by a citizens group. J.M. Studebaker presented the 18-carat gold cup.  Measuring 14 inches, the cup, purchased from Tiffany and Company in New York, was engraved with portraits of the Oliver family, the hotel, the original factory on the West Race, and the new factory that had been erected on the southwest edge of the city.

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The Oliver Hotel ca. 1912

The hotel was more opulent than anyone could have imaged for turn of the century South Bend.The six story hotel cost a total of $600,000 to build and was constructed with a steel skeleton, hollow tile arches, and partitions which made it fireproof.

The first two floors were public, with lobby and rotunda designed in an Italian Renaissance style embellished in gold with allegorical figures painted to represent the four seasons, the fine arts, the elements, and the performing arts.

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South Bend Tribune archives

The images of 16 females representing the seasons, the arts, earth, water, fire, and air were painted at the top of the rotunda, and this lavish decor extended to all other areas of the hotel.

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South Bend Tribune archives

Due to the “dry movement” in the late 1890s and early 1900s, the Oliver Hotel was built without a bar or cocktail lounge. The hotel, however, would have many amenities over the years.

A doting and well-trained wait staff.

OLIVER HOTEL EMPLOYEES

These men were all waiters at the Oliver Hotel in South Bend in the early 1920s. The beautiful piece of artwork in the background was made of cloth. This photo was published in “South Bend Remembered, Vol. II,” available at the customer service counter of the South Bend Tribune.

There was a bakery.

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Courtesy of South Bend Center for History

A fleet of Western Union deliverymen to tend to any of your shipping and shopping needs.

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The Western Union deliverymen lined up on bicycles in front of Oliver Hotel near Main and Washington Streets in 1932.

The Oliver corporation ran the hotel from its inception until disaster struck in the 1920s.Farm prices fell drastically and farmers were no longer pay the debts they owed, let alone buy new farming implements.

In 1923, Oliver Chilled Plow Works was at a crossroads.The company would merge with other farm tool manufacturers, a tractor manufacturer and company that made threshing machines in order to survive. The hotel was becoming a financial burden. Somewhere around 1927 the Oliver would be sold to a Philadelphia born, Chicago made hotelier named Andrew C. Weisburg.

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The Oliver, ca. 1920s

Weisburg is a fascinating man. Originally born in Pennsylvania, He was a real estate mogul with hotels in Chicago, South Bend and Los Angeles and chairman of the state of Indiana’s boxing commission throughout the 1920s and 1930s. He also managed legendary fighter Jack Dempsey.

Arka Shanks, proprietor of the hotel died of a cerebral hemorrhage on January 13, 1936 in his apartment in the hotel. Weisburg, now busier than ever with boxing, needed someone to run the hotel.

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in-south-bend-hotel-oliver-albert-pick-5In 1938, management of the Oliver would be handed over to the Pick Hotel corporation, a.k.a. Albert Pick Hotels.

(I had originally written a long section here about the Pick corporation but I think I will save it as I plan on doing a post about about the man Albert Pick and all of the Albert Pick hotels and motels.)

After a few years of management, The Oliver Hotel was sold to the Pick Hotel corporation on October 20, 1942.

Albert Pick owned more than a dozen aging hotels in this era and would spend money bringing the old palaces in to the middle of the 20th century. After World War II and throughout the early 1950s.

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The Oliver would continue to be the place to stay in town or to get a bite. The Ford Hopkins drugstore in the hotel provided great service and a quality meal at a reasonable price.

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This photo show the old soda fountain and snack bar of the Ford Hopkins Drug Store, which was located in the Oliver Hotel. The lady in the white uniform is Cristine Brewington (Lea), the manager of the snack bar. This photo was taken 1949. Photo by Mary (Mangum) Mayes

The hotel also provided a quality shave and haircut.

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This photo was taken in the basement of the Pick-Oliver Hotel. The barbershop was popular among area residents as well as people staying in the hotel. Otis the shoeshine man is standing in the front of the shop. He shined shoes and also cleaned up the shop for the barbers. In the 1st chair is Dr. O’Malley with his barber and the owner of the shop, Wendel “Smitty” Smith. The next barber is Claude “Mose” Campbell, Smith’s brother-in-law and the last chair is barber Jerry Brown.

In 1957, the hotel was re-named the Pick-Oliver to better reflect the ownership’s naming policy. (By that point, all of their hotels would be named Pick-(hotel)). The Pick Corporation would continue to run the Pick-Oliver but changes were coming and these changes would lead to the demise of the opulent hotel.

The Indianapolis Star – December 14, 1966

After the closure of South Bend’s Studebaker automobile manufacturing plant on December 9, 1963, South Bend struggled. Thousands were out of work and patrons, many visiting the Studebaker plant, were not staying in the hotel.

Downtown South Bend was no longer a destination and the hotel was over sixty years old by this point and starting to resemble an old, stuffy relic. The hotel was out of place in the new automobile-friendly age of motels and motor inns.

By 1965, the hotel was in need of some serious repairs and the Pick-corporation was looking to unload the old place. However, costs of renovating the marble and gold-laced hotel was cost prohibitive.

In the age of urban renewal it was much easier to find a buyer that could “do something” modern with the old place. The Pick corporation would sell the land to a pair of developers from Tulsa, Oklahoma named Kelley and Marshall. The developers had no plans to renovate the once-proud palace.

In late 1966 it was announced that a new skyscraper was coming to  downtown South Bend. The $5.5 million, twenty-three story tower would be used for office space, the American Bank and a new Albert Pick Motor Inn. The site chosen for the new building was the site of the Pick-Oliver. The old dame, it was decided, had outlived its usefulness.

The 67-year old hotel would be razed and the new, modern edifice would be built on the Oliver’s ashes. Very little was done to save the hotel. In the age of urban renewal, an old opulent hotel with no parking was deemed obsolete and in the way of progress. The old hotel was torn down in the summer of 1967.

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Local citizens watch the demolition of the Oliver Hotel. South Bend Tribune archives

In 1969, a brutalist tower that would alternately be called the American Bank building and the Albert Pick Motor Inn opened.

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The Albert Pick Motor Inn shortly after its opening.

The building still stands.  The Albert Pick corporation would fizzle shortly after opening and the motor inn would become a Holiday Inn. By the late 2000s, it had gone through multiple motel and bank chains. Nothing about the building feels special. It’s ugly and once I found out it was the site of the Oliver I grew to hate it more.

Plans are in the works to remodel the building and turn the old building into luxury apartments.

Special thanks to the South Bend Tribune, Center for History and the University of Notre Dame for the fabulous pictures – the postcards and matchbooks are from my collection – and for the helping me to try piece the story of the Oliver Hotel together.

Kerns Hotel Fire – December 11, 1934

City in Ruins
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Lansing State Journal – December 12, 1934

 

Around 5:30 a.m. on the morning of December 11, 1934 a fire broke out at the Kerns Hotel in Lansing, Michigan. The hotel, built in 1909, was four stories tall and originally contained 162 rooms at a cost of over $50,000. The hotel was a very popular place in Lansing. Communities members and state politicians enjoyed staying or meeting at the hotel. The location on the corner of SE Grand and Ottawa was right in the heart of downtown and allowed for easy and quick access to most everything in Lansing. The restaurant and bar in the Kerns were constantly packed during the non-prohibition years.

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Detroit Free Press – December 12, 1934

The fire was discovered by the nightwatchman and had apparently been burning for nearly 30 minutes. The alarm bell was sounded almost immediately after discovery but it was already too late. The interior of the building was made entirely of wood and the flames spread fast. Being so early in the morning, many of the hotel’s 215 guests were still asleep when the alarm rang.

The fire department showed up almost immediately and many of the guests on the lower two floors were able to escape quickly. The guests on the third and fourth floor were unable to get down the stairs and were basically trapped. A steel at one end prevented

Flames swept through the hallways and doors leaving many on the upper floors to cry for help and seek a dramatic escape. The fire department had ladders and were able to get some out but not everyone could get to the ladders. Some victims attempted to gain safety by jumping onto the kitchen roof below but ultimately perished when the roof collapsed. Some guests jumped out of the windows and attempted to jump into safety nets placed on the street below.. Several people died when they jumped to the ground below missing the firemen’s net.

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Detroit Free Press – December 13, 1934

The death toll was difficult to determine due to the fact that many victims were unable to be found. Some victims were charred beyond recognition and others were feared lost in the freezing Grand River. The river was located directly behind the hotel and guests, trapped by the blaze, may have leaped from their windows directly into the ice-covered river.The fire caused several  of the brick exterior walls to collapse, killing several.

After the river was dragged and the ruins combed it was determined that 32 persons died and 44 were injured, including 14 firemen. Among the dead were seven Michigan state legislators in town for a special session of the state legislature

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  • JOHN W. GOODWINE, representative from Marlette. He was completing his fourth term in the Legislature. He operated a stock farm in Elmer Township; directed the farm bureau. He was 56 years old.
  • VERN VOORHEES, representative from Albion. A farmer, her moved to Calhoun County from Mendon in 1907. Served as school director, highway commissioner and supervisor. At 56, he was serving his first term.
  • CHARLES D. PARKER, representative from Genesee County. A Democrat, Mr. Parker was serving his first term. A hardware merchant, born in South Mountain, Ontario 57 years ago. He left a widow and two sons.
  • T. HENRY HOWLETT, representative from Gregory. He was finishing his first term. A merchant, he served Livingstone County as supervisor and treasurer for many years. He was 70 years old.
  • JOHN LEIDLEIN, State senator from Saginaw. He was serving his fourth term. He was 70 years old.
  • DONALD E. SIAS, representative from Midland. He was completing his second term. Born in Midland he was serving as an aviator in World War I. Before going into dairy, he taught school at Ypsilanti.
  • WILLIAM HANNA, representative from Caro died several days after the fire of injuries sustained while jumping out his third floor window and missing the safety net.

Several other state legislators were injured, but survived. The deaths of the politicians caused anguish and strife. Special elections had to be held in four different legislative districts to elect new members to replace the fallen.

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Lansing State Journal – December 11, 1934

The deaths actually caused the balance of power in the Michigan House of Representatives to shift from the G.O.P. to the Democarts when M.L. Tomlin won the final seat.

The widow of Vern Voorhees was awarded $750 in May of 1935 for funeral costs and hospital. Other settlements were awarded but the amounts were not disclosed.

There were four victims of the fire that were never identified. A funeral was held for them on December 29th at the Prudden Auditorium in Lansing.

It was determined that the fire was caused by a carelessly discarded cigarette in the room of David Monroe, hotel manager, who died in the conflagration. No charges were brought against anyone from the hotel. It was determined that a reasonable effort was made to arouse and awaken the 200+ sleeping guests.

On June 1, 1935 the Hotel Safety Act of Michigan went into effect. The act was drafted to prevent any possibility of a recurrence of the events at the Kerns Hotel. The Act stated that any building in the state that had 10 or more persons sleeping above the first be registered with the state fire marshal and that the safety of the hotel was to be approved upon inspection.

Unfortunately this would not be the last hotel fire in Michigan with at least 10 lives lost. Almost exactly 43 years later on December 10, 1977, the Wenonah Park Hotel fire in Bay City resulted in ten deaths.

Stouffer’s Inn Fire – December 4, 1980

City in Ruins, Uncategorized

CITY IN RUINS

WHAT: Hotel Fire
WHEN: December 4, 1980 about 10:20am
WHERE: Purchase, New York
Casualties: 26 dead, 24 injured

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Stouffer’s Inn photo courtesy of the National Fire Protection Association

Intro from an AP article that ran the day after the fire:

Business executives gathered for meeting at a hotel “didn’t have a chance” when an electrical fire raced through conference rooms with heat so intense that it melted walls, fire officials said.

The Stouffer’s Inn was located 20 miles north of Mid-Manhattan along a hillside strip called the “Platinum Mile” because of its concentration of corporate headquarters.

The hotel was built in 1977 at a cost of $20 million.  It had 366 guest rooms and, due to its proximity to all of the corporate headquarters, was a popular spot for business meetings and contained a two-level conference center adjacent to the tower that contained the hotel rooms.

Pepsico, General Foods, IBM, Nestle and Arrow Electronics were all holding business meetings at the Inn on December 4, 1980.

At around 10:20 a.m. a fire broke out just outside of one of the conference rooms on the second-floor and spread incredibly quickly due to a lack of sprinklers and the Inn’s usage of highly flammable wall coverings and carpet.

A total of 26 people attending breakfast meetings died in the smoke and flames, including 13 top executives of Arrow Electronics and 11 employees of Nestle. Ironically, Nestle was the parent company of Stouffer’s at that time.

AP Photo – December 5, 1980

The victims all died within two or three minutes of the start of the fire and were killed by smoke inhalation with carbon monoxide in the smoke. Seven bodies were later found in a closet of the conference room that was Arrow Electronics’ budget meeting. The victims apparently mistook the closet door for an exit.

Many of the injuries occurred when several General Foods executives smashed a window in their second-floor conference room adjacent to where the fire started and jumped 35 feet to a rocky slope below.

Initially, investigators thought the fire was caused by an electrical shortage but the speed and of the blaze strongly suggested an arsonist using an accelerant.

In 2014, the National Fireproof Protection Association wrote about the actual causes of the fire:

The fire originated in an exit access corridor outside the meeting rooms in the three-story, fire resistive, nonsprinklered building that was classified as a place of assembly.  In the early stages of the fire, meeting-room occupants were faced with rapidly deteriorating, untenable conditions that impeded their escape to safety.  This fire emphasizes the importance of maintaining the integrity of exit access areas and the extreme hazard to life safety when fire originates in such areas.

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National Fire Protection Association

The significant factors contributing to the loss of life in this fire were:

1. the critical location of the fire in the intersection of the exit access corridors.
2. the rapid development of the fire through the combination of its origin and the available fuel load provided by contents and furnishings in the exit access.
3. the lack of a remote second means of egress from some occupied meeting rooms;
4. the lack of a fixed fire protection system to detect and extinguish the fire in its incipient stage.

This was the second hotel fire with a death toll in two weeks, just 13 days earlier a fire in the MGM Grand Hotel Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada killed 85 and more than 700 people were injured. Howard Levin, an employee of Arrow electronics narrowly escaped both the MGM and Stouffer’s fires. When asked if he considered himself lucky or unlucky, he said “I consider it the former.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch – December 9, 1980

There was understandable outrage. Officials made promises to make the proper changes to ensure this would not happen again.People wondered how these tragic events kept happening.

Fire safety and code changes were called for in every newspaper across the country.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote about the situation five days after the fire:

“As long as the ashes are still hot, officials always vow that there’ll never be a next time. But in the end nothing much happens.”

I will be writing about a lot of these earlier hotel fires and you will see the same quotes from officials, the same call for changes and the same outrage.You’ll see lack of code enforcement, lack of exits and lack of sprinklers.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

The hotel reopened on April 4, 1981. It is still standing to this day.

The Stouffer’s Fire was front page news for less than one week. On December 9, 1980, John Lennon was assassinated in front of his apartment in New York. The public and press moved on to that tragedy and disappeared from public consciousness. However, fire investigators and victims’ families did not move on.

Less than a year after the fire, a Stouffer’s Inn busboy would be charged with starting the fire. The Virginia Law Archives have a courtroom sketch from the archives of artist Ida Libby Dengrove and a succinct write-up of the trial

Ida Libby Dengrove courtroom sketch

Guatemalan busboy Luis Marin told conflicting stories about his actions during the fire. Marin was a coffee waiter who worked with Sterno, a jellylike fuel placed under coffee urns. As Marin neared trial, his defense attorney told the press Marin had indeed spilled Sterno earlier that morning but that he’d made sure to stamp the small flames out. When the inn suddenly became an inferno, he’d thought himself responsible and lied to his questioners.

On February 5, 1982, Judge Lawrence N. Martin Jr. denied a defense motion to dismiss Marin’s indictment, though he admitted the prosecution’s case was weak. The trial went forward with a procession of tenuous circumstantial evidence. Nonetheless, the jury found Marin guilty on April 11. Four days later, Judge Martin set aside the verdict. The New York State Supreme Court upheld the reversal on May 29, 1984. Marin went free, and the families of the dead executives won $48.5 million from Stouffer’s and other corporations in a civil suit.

In June 1984, it came to light that a housekeeping crew had spilled a highly volatile stainless steel cleaner in the area where the fire started. Hotel management allegedly withheld the information to avoid culpability.

The Stouffer’s hotel brand would survive the lawsuit and thrive throughout the 1980s, In 1993, Nestle sold the chain to Renaissance Hotels. The Stouffer’s name would be phased out a short time later. The Stouffer’s food brand can still be food in the freezer section of your local supermarket.

The Stouffer’s Inn fire did actually  lead to sweeping  fire code changes throughout New York and the hotel industry. While a few more hotel fires occurred in the 1980s, the frequency of these horrible hotel fires was reduced.

Lucille’s Dishes

Come Home Soon

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Birdseye view of Chicago’s famous Boulevard Link at the junction of Lake Shore Drive and Upper Michigan Avenue, In the near background can be seen the Drake, Drake Tower apartments and other fine residential apartments overlooking Lake Michigan at the Oak Street Beach. In the far background – the Navy Pier and the Palmolive Building, topped by the Lindbergh beacon.

Mailed from Chicago, Illinois to Tammy Bohnert of Louisville, Kentucky on June 23, 1950:

I hope you aren’t forgetting to was the dishes for Lucille.
– Mother & Daddy

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