The Journal Gazette
 
 
Thursday, August 30, 2018 1:00 am

Feb. 3 and 4, 1975: Fires on The Landing

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

On the night of Feb. 3, 1975, two fires swept through buildings on The Landing.

Hoses criss-crossed as firefighters fought blazes in the 141-year-old Rosemarie Hotel and the five-story Old Fort Draperies office building, at Columbia and Harrison streets.

The office building fire was reported about two hours after the hotel fire, and fire officials that night said the two were not connected.

It was estimated crews were using 2,500 gallons of water a minute. Wind gusts blew spray from the hoses several blocks away and freezing temperatures created slick conditions on nearby streets.

Attorneys and businessmen rushed into their offices to salvage documents.

The fourth floor of the 95-room hotel was gutted by the fire and towering flames destroyed the rear of the building. Fire crews had been called to the building about 9 p.m. and witnesses reported seeing smoke and flames 10 blocks away.

Many of the hotel's guests were evacuated in their underclothes and were not able to return to their rooms for clothes or valuables.

Owner John Arnold said the hotel contained thousands of dollars of antiques and estimated the value of the building and its contents at $250,000.

While he watched the building burn, he admitted that none of it was covered by insurance.

On the afternoon of Feb. 4, a second fire in the Old Fort Draperies building drew exhausted firefighters back to The Landing. Many of them had only a few hours of sleep after fighting The Landing fires and a separate blaze about the same time at Third Presbyterian Church on Harrison.

Arson was suspected in both office building fires and the hotel blaze. Both buildings were eventually razed. The Old Fort Draperies site is now a parking lot, and the Rosemarie Hotel site was later replaced by an ivy covered structure that has recently been torn down as part of a project to revitalize the one-block stretch of Columbia Street between Harrison and Calhoun streets.

To suggest a date or event to be featured, email Corey McMaken at cmcmaken@jg.net or call 461-8475.

 

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The following stories originally appeared in editions of The Journal Gazette from February 1975:

Feb. 4, 1975

Blazes Strike 2 Landmarks

By Al Brakoniecki

A two-alarm fire swept through the 141-year-old Rosemarie Hotel on The Landing last night as firefighters battled the raging flames in sub-freezing temperatures.

About two hours after the hotel fire broke out, a second fire was reported across the street in the Old Fort Draperies. Fire officials said the two fires were not connected.

By midnight, flames in the hotel had been extinguished but smoke continued to pour from the building.

The second fire broke out about 11 p.m. in a five-story office building above Old Fort Draperies at the corner of Columbia and Harrison streets. Thomas Heckman, City Fire Chief, said the fires were not connected. The second blaze was believed to have started on the third or fourth floor.

Attorneys and businessmen scurried to their offices to clear out valuable papers as smoke and water filled the hallways. Red-eyed firefighters said smoke and water damage to the building was expected to be heavy.

Hoses criss-crossed haphazardly as firemen fought the two blazes. It was estimated that 2,500 gallons of water a minute were being dumped on the buildings, giving a rain-like effect to the four-block area.

Firefighters continued to fight the flames late last night and attempted to keep the blaze from spreading to nearby buildings. The Best Beauty Supply Co. and a USDA Food Stamp office, the two neighboring buildings to the hotel, had not been touched late last night.

The 35 permanently occupied apartments were mostly vacant when the blaze broke out and the remaining residents were quickly evacuated. A firefighter who was slightly overcome by smoke appeared to be the only casualty.

The fire appeared to have started between the fourth floor and the roof. The fourth floor of the hotel was gutted by the blaze as the fire worked its way down floor by floor. Towering flames destroyed the rear of the building.

The first fire units raced to the hotel about 9 p.m. and additional units were called within minutes. The first units found thick white clouds of smoke pouring from the roof of the building. Witnesses reported observing smoke and flames from 10 blocks away.

Firefighters used water pressure to break top story windows to get at the flames. In a few instances, the old glass refused to break and firefighters were forced to swing dangerously close with the aerial ladder to smash the glass with a pole.

Irene Shaw, desk clerk at the hotel, said she smelled smoke just before 9 p.m. and thought the Western Union machine was on fire. The woman said she called John Arnold, the owner, who was in the bar and he and several persons went up to the fourth floor and saw clouds of smoke.

Ivan Shirely, one of the men who went up with Arnold, said they began yelling for people to leave the hotel. He estimated about 15 people were in their rooms when the blaze started.

The residents, many of them elderly and clothed only in long underwear, gathered in the lobby until firefighters ordered them to leave about 9:30 p.m. Several fights almost broke out when residents wanted to return to their rooms for valuables.

Gusty westerly winds blew spray from the hoses and soot on automobiles several blocks away. Freezing temperatures created slick conditions on neighboring streets.

As crowds gathered and flames ate away at the hotel, Arnold stood silently watching the hotel he's owned for the past 10 years go up in smoke. Puffing on a cigarette, Arnold said he could only describe his feelings as, “sick.”

Arnold said the hotel contained several thousand dollars worth of antiques including brass beds and vintage chandeliers. He estimated the value of the building and its contents at $250,000.

While watching the building burn, Arnold admitted the building and its contents were not covered by insurance. There was no insurance because the cost would be prohibitive on a building that old, he said.

When asked why he would put all his antiques in a building that he could not insure, Arnold shrugged and said, “I just did.”

According to Arnold, he had a 10 a.m. appointment scheduled for today to sell the hotel. Arnold said he did not know who the buyer was but said the deal was set up through the Peoples Trust Bank.

Landing businessmen late last night were standing watch in the doorways of their shops wondering how far the fire would spread.

Police, not ruling out arson, were busy searching all shops in the area, but had found no intruders.

Also:

Fire of undetermined origin raged through the Third Presbyterian Church at 2230 S. Harrison St. early today. The edifice was erected in 1900.

Fort Wayne Fire Dept. Combat Chief Tony Myers said by the time firemen arrived at the scene the blaze had spread throughout the structure. Unites from Adams and St. Joseph's townships, on standby duty in the city because of the fire at The Landing, assisted local firemen in fighting the blaze.

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Many Guests Flee Fire in Underwear

By Dell Ford

It was 9 p.m.

Elmer Rigdon was watching television and preparing to retire for the night when someone knocked on his door -- 207 in the Rosemarie Hotel -- and shouted, “The building's on fire! Get out!”

Rigdon, called “Dad” by many of the hotel guests and employees, got out. With the clothes he was wearing: A T-shirt, trousers, shoes and socks. Period.

About an hour later, munching popcorn at the bar of the Big Wheel, a stone's throw from the Rosemarie on Fort Wayne's historic Landing, Rigdon said what he left behind in 207 included his Social Security check for $230.10, two or three suits, a topcoat. All his clothes.

A two-year resident of the 141-year-old hotel, Rigdon said he doesn't know who it was sounding the alarm on the second floor.

“Chuck someone,” he said popping popcorn into his mouth. “I don't know who he is and,” he added, “I don't know where he came from.”

Standing by the 86-year-old retired barber was his “adopted” daughter Sheri Hensley.

Sheri, who came to Fort Wayne five years ago from California with her sister, was morning cook (with owner John Arnold) at the hotel. She was home, getting ready for bed, when a friend telephone and asked if she knew the Rosemarie was on fire.

“I said 'Oh my God! Dad! I threw the phone down,” she said, “and made the 20-minute drive down here in five.”

Sheri, explaining “Dad” is “all the family I have here besides my sister,” said she and Rigdon celebrate their birthdays (both in November) and Christmas together.

Rigdon, who barbered in a shop at Wells and Fourth Streets for 43 years, said he moved to the Rosemarie “because I'd lived with my daughter (Mrs. Annabell Detter) five or six years and I just wanted to be by myself.” He'll now return to his daughter's home.

Seated on a Big Wheel bar stool by Rigdon was Russell Rafner, a retired janitor and a resident of Room 236 at the hotel. He said he'd lived in the hotel “better than eight years.”

Asked if he'd left anything of value when he vacated his room, Rafner replied “Hah. Hell no! Well, some clothes.”

A woman in the Big Wheel said many of the hotel residents came to the corner bar “in their underwear. And bare feet.”

Charles Duma, a three-month resident of the Rosemarie and a cook at the Rescue Mission, did get some clothes from the Mission for the residents. Rigdon was wearing an overcoat that drooped well below his knees. He'd turned up the sleeve cuffs for comfort's sake.

Duma said he'd made arrangements with Mission officials to provide temporary housing for some of the men who'd lived at the hotel. At the same time, Rita Carpenter, disaster director for the Allen-Wells Chapter, American Red Cross, was lining up rooms at the YMCA. She said the Y could provide lodging for 22 persons (including 2 women). If additional rooms were needed, she said she'd check with “emergency” motels.

The disaster chief, who was being assisted by Sara Keller (whose husband is a fireman) and Janel Urquhart, said she would check into emergency clothing needs Tuesday.

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Feb. 5, 1975

Arson Blamed For Second Blaze In Old Landing Building

By Al Brakoniecki and Mark Smith

Arson has been blamed for the blast furnace blaze that ripped through the Old Fort Draperies building last night and brought exhausted firefighters back to The Landing for the second time in two nights.

Fire Chief Thomas Heckman said the blaze spread through the building too fast to be anything other than the work of an arsonist. Chemicals were probably used, he said. About 4:45 p.m., less than 30 minutes before fire broke out, investigators were rummaging through the charred remains of Monday night's fire.

Three fires broke out within four hours of each other Monday night, gutting several floors of the drapery building at Columbia and Harrison streets, and destroying the historic Rosemarie Hotel, on The Landing, and the Third Presbyterian Church, 2230 S. Harrison St.

Investigations will continue today to determine the cause of Monday night's fires and whether they are linked to last night's blaze.

Thomas Casaburo, city public safety director, said evidence of arson has been uncovered in the first fire at the drapery building. Sodium and nitrate were found in the building and the fire had several origins, he said.

Firefighters were recalled to the drapery building yesterday when it appeared the fire had restarted. First units on the scene found dense clouds of black smoke billowing form sixth floor windows.

Within minutes, 50-foot flames were leaping from three sides of the building and were visible at least a mile away. The Landing was soon cluttered with nearly as much fire equipment as had been used Monday night.

Fireballs of debris floated to the ground and a hail of sparks sizzled on contact with waterlogged streets. Police kept curious onlookers away from the blaze while smoke engulfed the area.

Firefighter David Auman suffered neck burns while working above the blaze on a snorkel platform. The fire's only casualty, he was treated and released at St. Joseph's Hospital.

Six hoses were draped over the railroad elevation behind the blazing building. Firemen were ordered off the elevation just before a roaring freight train severed the hoses.

Firefighters soaked neighboring buildings and kept the blaze from spreading. Offices on the second floor of the building next door appeared to have suffered heavy water and smoke damage.

About 7 p.m. the fire appeared out and Heckman ordered hoses turned off. Ten minutes later, flames reappeared through the charred building and thousands of gallons of water were again poured into the building.

The main part of the blaze was extinguished about 8:30 p.m. but fire units remained late into the night to put out small flare ups.

Police and fire officials cleared crowds away from the Harrison Street side of the building about 10:30 p.m. Officials reported the fire had weakened the west wall and feared the wall would collapse.

Many firefighters who were out battling last night's fire were also out Monday night. The fortunate ones managed to get two hours sleep before they returned to duty but many had not slept at all.

Phil Wyss, a seven year veteran, said he was called in about 10 p.m. Monday and worked straight through until his shift started yesterday morning. Thomas Adams said he did not have time to think about being tired and turned to direct a hose crew.

As firefighters battled the flames, several police photographers roamed the streets taking pictures of the crowds. Arsonists often return to fires they set and the pictures may aid in apprehending the person responsible, Casaburo said reluctantly.

Though the drapery building was locked and secured after yesterday's inspection by arson investigators, one official said, “anyone could have gotten in the building during the day if he was wearing a hard hat.” One bystander said fire escapes at the rear of the building could provide easy access to anyone who wanted to get inside.

Investigators will begin sifting through the drapery building today as well as the hotel and church. Officials had not determined the cause of either the hotel or the church fire.

While firefighters battled The Landing blazes Monday night, the church fire was added to their burden. Several fire units from The Landing raced to the church along with units from neighboring fire departments.

The first units found the upper section of the church engulfed in flames. Heckman said the church was nearly a total loss.

Fire units remained at the church and hotel throughout the day yesterday, sifting through the rubble and dousing cinders. The last fire unit left from the Rosemarie shortly before the second fire at the drapery building.

John Arnold, owner of the Rosemarie, returned to his building yesterday to salvage what was left of his thousands of dollars worth of antiques. Arnold and friends loaded a small pickup truck with paintings, lamps and furniture that was salvaged from the first floor of the hotel.

The night of the fire, Arnold said he valued the building and its contents at $250,000 but did not venture the actual loss. “That's the price I was asking for it,” he said.

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Her Most Liked Job Up In Smoke

By Dell Ford

A year ago last July, Phil Harris sat at the bar of the Bar None and twanged off tale after tale as only Harris knows how. His listeners laughed.

Yesterday, the Bar None, which abuts the Rosemarie Hotel on the east, was clammy cold. Dank. Dark. Eerie.

An inch or so of water stood on the carpet and five glasses, filled with varying amounts of beer, zigzagged down the bar. Silent testimony to the fire that late Monday night gutted the Landing's landmark hotel, forcing Bar None patrons to beat a hasty exit. Two even left their jackets on the barstools.

Where normally there would have been the tinkle of ice against glass and the hum of conversation, yesterday the only sound in the bar was a steady cascade of water. Darkness made it seem like the sound of a waterfall in an underground cavern.

It was a waterfall of sorts. Water falling from upper hotel floors into the once elegant Gold Mine Restaurant and a dining room that only last September became the Fort Wayne Press Club's new home.

Outside on Columbia Street, firemen tended to the tedious business of gathering up hoses that had poured thousands of gallons of water into the hotel. Curious onlookers ambled along the sidewalk on the north side of Columbia, gazing up at the burned-out building.

From a front window booth in the Pickle, directly across from the Rosemarie, Irene Shaw watched the firemen work and the lookers look.

“I can't believe anything went so fast,” she said.

It was Mrs. Shaw, Western Union operator and night desk clerk at the Rosemarie, who first smelled smoke and alerted hotel-Bar None owner John Arnold.

She thinks it was about 9 p.m., but really doesn't know “because it went so fast,” that she “smelled something like wires. Electric wires. You know how they smell when they melt.”

At first she thought it might be coming from a wastebasket. It wasn't. Then she checked the Western Union machine next to her desk in the lobby area.

“It wasn't that so I had someone go get John (who was tending bar). He came over and I told him I smelled something. He smelled it, too,” she said.

It was, she recalls, a “matter of minutes” after she alerted Arnold that “someone yelled 'Fire.'”

Mrs. Shaw said she dialed the operator (”I couldn't remember the emergency number”) and told her the Rosemarie was on fire “and we need help now! The firemen were here in no time at all. They were really on the ball.”

Before leaving the hotel, she said she had to call Western Union in Indianapolis “and tell them to stop sending wires.”

Mystified by the chain of events, Mrs. Shaw said she was “up on the third floor -- in the back of the building” not more than 45 minutes before she first smelled “something” in the lobby area. Her question is, why didn't she smell “something” when she was on three, closer to the area where the fire supposedly originated?

Posing it to herself -- the question “Why the Rosemarie?” Mrs. Shaw said, “Yes, I cried. I sat in my car all night and didn't leave until 6 a.m.” Her car, she said, was in a lot at the west edge of the Landing.

She was back at the hotel at 8 or 8:30 a.m. yesterday to retrieve water-soaked money order records wired in before the fire. She said she took the records to Western Union's main office on West Washington Boulevard.

“I've done a lot of weird things,” she said, still looking out the Pickle window. “I worked in a Jolly Green Giant pea factory, cooked for combining crews, taught school (grades 1 through 8 in a country school in her native South Dakota).

“But this is the job,” she said, “I liked the most.”


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