The Journal Gazette
Thursday, July 25, 2019 1:00 am

1974: Explosive demolitions of Van Orman, Keenan hotels

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

Hotels seem to be springing up all around downtown Fort Wayne these days. But in 1974, the opposite was true.

About 10 a.m. on Jan. 13, 1974, Mayor Ivan A. Lebamoff led a 10-second countdown as more than 150 people stood in near-freezing weather near Hotel Van Orman at Harrison and Berry streets. It was the city's first explosive demolition project.

The crowd heard several sharp booms come from the 65-year-old building as 294 shaped charges strapped to columns in its basement and first floor were detonated.

Within seconds, the eight-story building had been reduced to a 25-foot-tall pile of rubble, according to a story by Chuck Crumbo in The Journal Gazette the next day.

The job went mostly according to plan, though a couple steel beams partially shoved in the wall of a nearby plumbing shop and some windows on another building were shattered by flying debris.

The Van Orman had been purchased at public auction by Fort Wayne National Bank. Just behind Fort Wayne's Famous Coney Island, the hotel's location became a parking lot.

On Oct. 20 of that year, another crowd gathered downtown to watch as the Keenan Hotel at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Harrison Street was demolished in similar fashion. 

The 13-story hotel built in 1922 had hosted names like presidents Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy in its heyday. It was demolished using 330 pounds of high-velocity gelatin in 252 charges detonated in 11 blasts, according to a story by Dell Ford in The Journal Gazette the next day.

It was said to have been louder and cleaner than the Van Orman job, though it did break a window in St. John's United Church of Christ and crushed part of a fence at a McDonald's across the street.

The site also became a parking lot, near the Allen County Public Library.

History Journal appears monthly in print with additional items weekly on The Journal Gazette's website. To comment on items or suggest dates and topics, contact Corey McMaken at 461-8475 or


The following stories appeared in The Journal Gazette:

“Hotel Van Orman Now Just Pile Of Rubble,” Chuck Crumbo (Jan. 14, 1974)

Less than 100 pounds of space-age explosives brought the Hotel Van Orman, a repository for countless Fort Wayne memories, to a “grand and glorious death” yesterday.

At about 10 a.m., workmen from Controlled Demolition Inc. detonated 294 shaped charges that were strapped to 64 steel columns located in the building's basement and first floor.

Nine seconds later, the eight-story, 65-year-old structure had crumbled into a 25-foot high pile of bricks, steel and concrete.

Officials of the blasting firm and Martin Inc., prime contractor for the hotel's razing, rated the blast a success despite some “minor” damage caused when a couple of beams partially shoved in the south wall of the nearby Standard Plumbing Shop.

Despite a two-hour delay in the blast time, more than 150 persons, including elected city officials, stood in the near-zero weather waiting for Fort Wayne's first explosive demolition work.

Their wait was not in vain because the event was spectacular.

Preceding the blast, a 10-second countdown was announced over a squad car's public address system by Mayor Ivan A. Lebamoff, who was sporting a bright red hard hat and red overcoat.

When the Mayor announced the blasting moment, spectators first heard to sharp booms and then watched the middle of the hotel's Harrison Street wall begin to fall.

Within a second, a third boom sounded and the north wing, which fronted Berry Street, crashed earthward.

The last blast was just milliseconds later than that and the south wing, which fronted an alley running between Calhoun and Berry, tumbled on top of the rubble.

As the building dropped into the quarter-block area, which will eventually be paged into another parking lot, a thin tail of blake smoke could be seen trailing from the chimney on the southeast corner.

John D. Loizeaux, president of Controlled Demolition, explained later the smoke is his company's trademark.

Tom Martin, president of the wrecking firm, said the blast's shock was comparable to that of a passing bus. Spectators could not feel the ground move when the charges were detonated.

A couple of windows on the front of the Commerce Building, which faces Berry, were shattered by flying debris, a Martin spokesman said.

Martin termed the damage done to the plumbing shop, which rear wall was just 16 feet from the Van Orman, as minor.

He praised the work of Loizeaux and his crew and added they may be called back for “three or four” other demolition jobs to be done in the future.

Loizeaux also heaped praise on Martin's crew for the work they did in preparing the hotel for the “shot.”

Meanwhile, workmen studied the pile of debris and tried to determine why the steel beams had shoved in the plumbing shop's wall.

Loizeaux's 23-year-old son, Douglas, who is second vice president of the company, said apparently the debris had backed up in the basement and there was no way for the beams to fall but into the other building.

But young Loizeaux added the real answer would not be known until “we study photos of the show, frame-by-frame.”

Part of the reason for the two-hour delay, Douglas said, was due to the extreme cold. The colder it gets, he said, the more charges (are) needed for the blasting.

Deputy Police Chief Sam Leto said officers encountered no problems in dealing with the blast's spectators. Leto said Berry and Harrison streets will remain closed until Martin's crews clean the debris from the streets.

The Van Orman was bought by Fort Wayne National Bank for $36,000 at a public auction last November. The building was put on the block because its owners owed more than $100,000 in delinquent taxes. Demolition of the hotel reportedly cost the bank and additional $125,000.


“Keenan Demise 'Louder, Cleaner' Than Earlier Van Orman Blast,” Dell Ford (Oct. 21, 1974)

“Louder and cleaner.”

That's how one observer compared yesterday's demise of the Keenan Hotel at the corner of Washington and Harrison streets with the Jan. 13 demolition of the Hotel Van Orman.

There's no doubt about the “louder.” The Van Orman was a baby “boom-boom” – the Keenan a kingsize “BANG! BANG! BANG!”

But clean is a word that doesn't quite fit the territory following the likes of such dynamite demolition jobs.

Scheduled to crumble at 7 a.m., the 12 story hotel (officially it's 13, but you know superstition) didn't go until 9:25. Delays included time to lay a blanket of earth in the alley between the Keenan and McDonald's Restaurant. This was for the added protection of utilities – especially gas mains.

As with the Van Orman, Controlled Demolition Inc., a father-son operation headquartered in Towson, Md., was responsible for the Keenan affair which attracted hundreds of onlookers, including scores of amateur lensmen.

Some people were “on site” as early as 6 a.m. Theirs' was a long, cold wait. Many were fortunate to get a good (and relatively warm) view from the seventh floor of the now vacant Indiana Hotel – the last of the old downtown hostelries.

Jack Loizeaux, the father half of CDI, pulled the switch that set off the charges that destroyed the “house” that the late James Keenan built in 1922.

Credit for what the elder Loizeaux calls the “design” of the Keenan project goes to son John Mark.

After the dust and dust and dust had settled, son John explained CDI used 330 pounds of high velocity gelatin (”it's a safer brand of dynamite”) there were 252 separate charges and 11 separate blasts (”some not audible – depends on your hearing”).

It went fast. Faster than a big bankroll at a Las Vegas craps table. One minute a gutted hotel which in its better days had hosted numerous notables (i.e., Presidents Truman and Kennedy). The next, a giant heap of bricks and tons of dirt. FAST!

“Designer” John Mark's scenario for the Keenan collapse called for the center of the structure to fold first, followed by the west wall (back), then the east (front), and finally, the two ends. It went just that way.

Whereas the Van Orman demolition jarred a rear wall of Standard Plumbing and Hardware Supply, the Keenan job merely broke a Sunday School window in St. John's United Church of Christ and crushed a part of a parking fence belonging to McDonald's.

Jack Loizeaux said the job was “designed so it would kiss in the center but the hotel water tower and tank on the Washington Boulevard side got over in the alley and knocked down the fence.” He added that “if they were balling the building, they would have had many more problems.” Plus, it might be noted, a whole lot more time in tearing down the building.

Helen Keenan Robers, daughter of the builder and last owner of the hotel, was on hand for the big blast.

Her comment, offered with a smile, was “Ashes to ashes. Always look forward. Never look back.”

Paul Haddad, president of the Washington, D.C., based Wrecking Corp. of America which was responsible for the blast site preparation and the ensuing cleanup, said Washington and Harrison will be free of debris by 7 a.m. today. He estimated “two weeks” on clearing the rubble.


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