The Journal Gazette
Thursday, August 29, 2019 1:00 am

Feb. 19, 1957: Fire guts downtown building

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

On Feb. 19, 1957, nearly 100 firefighters battled a blaze downtown in frigid temperatures for six hours. A glaze of ice formed on nearby buildings – and some of the firemen – as a million gallons of water flowed from about 50 fire hoses into the building, which was left gutted.

The three-story brick structure on the southwest corner of Jefferson and Calhoun (where the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory stands now) housed several businesses including Meyer Brothers Drug Store on the first floor. Upstairs was a beauty college, photo studio and music studio.

Losses from the fire were estimated at $350,000. That would be about $3.2 million today, adjusted for inflation.

The fire started near the boiler room in the basement of the building and was found about 11:30 a.m. by the drugstore's manager, Arthur Meyer. It had destroyed the phone lines before he could call for help, so as the building was evacuated, he hurried to a nearby store to sound the alarm.

No one was injured though about a dozen firemen were treated for issues related to smoke.

Firefighters were using some new equipment during the blaze – very new.

Packages of walkie-talkie radio transmitters and receivers had been delivered in the mail to the Main Street fire station only 20 minutes before the call came in. When the alarm sounded, the cartons were ripped open and signalmen rigged the portable devices in a matter of minutes so they could be used at command posts around the downtown fire.

Thousands of onlookers gathered to watch and traffic was snarled as the busy streets were closed off. Volunteers brought coffee and sandwiches to the firemen and dozens of policemen who were stationed around the area.

A number of the latter were from the nearby police academy and were ordered to traffic duty as the fire progressed.

After the fire was out about 5:30 p.m., a new problem was found: Natural gas lines had ruptured during the blaze. Workmen dug into Calhoun and Jefferson to find the cut-off valves.

The fire brought to mind a blaze 10 years earlier that caused $750,000 in damage at nearly the same site.

A fire wall installed shortly before a Feb. 15, 1947, blaze that gutted the Standard Rug & Linoleum Co. building nearby on Jefferson and was credited at the time for saving the building that burned in 1957.

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 in 1957:


“$350,000 Loss In Downtown Fire; Cause Still Mystery,” by Jerry White (Feb. 20, 1957)

Firemen poked among blackened ruins and tons of debris last night seeking the cause of a $350,000 fire which ravaged a three-story brick building yesterday at Jefferson and Calhoun Streets.

The blaze started in the basement below Meyer Brothers Drug Store. Spreading quickly and sending up dense clouds of chemical-laden smoke, the blaze defied firemen nearly six hours.

Occupants of the brick building at the southwest corner of the intersection included the Meyer's store, the first floor and basement; Warner Beauty College, second and third floors; Jefferson Photo Studio, second floor, and the Fred Church Music Studio, third floor.

Hardest hit by the blaze was the Meyer Bros. store where the fire gutted the interior. Loss there was placed at $175,000 by Elwood Heine, vice president of the company.

The beauty college loss will exceed $50,000, officials reported. Paul Lavergne, manager of the college, described it as a complete loss.

Rex Conn Jr., owner of the photography shop, said his loss would exceed $30,000. Church, operator of the music studio, explained the fire destroyed two pianos and other furnishings.

Owners of the 50-by-120-foot building said their loss would be more than $100,000. The roof on half of the building was destroyed, the third and first floors gutted and the second floor heavily damaged.

Nearly all of the 48 windows of the building were destroyed by the flames or broken by high-pressure streams.

Fire Chief Clinton J. Baals and Assistant Fire Chief Maine Graft said late last night they had been unable yet to determine the cause of the fire. The blaze started near a boiler room but firemen were unable to determine if an explosion occurred.

Nearly 100 firemen and 18 firefighting machines pumped a million gallons of water and worked from 11:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. yesterday before the fire was reduced to a wisp of smoke. About a dozen firemen were treated at the scene for smoke exhaustion.

Once the blaze was quenched, a new menace appeared. Natural gas lines ruptured during the blaze and had to be sealed off.

Workmen from the Northern Indiana Public Service Co. had to dig into Calhoun and Jefferson Streets to find cut-off valves and end the emergency.

Chief Baals said he would keep a group of firemen on duty around the clock to make sure the fire did not rekindle.

City firemen worked in icy temperatures to save nearby buildings. Rowland's Furniture Store, the next building south on Calhoun Street from the doomed building, and the F. & B. Cleaning Shop, adjoining on Jefferson Street, had smoke and water damage but no fire loss.

Heroic work by ice-coated firemen and strong fire walls saved nearby buildings from fire damage. By coincidence the same fire walls that saved the adjoining buildings, protected the Meyer site 10 years ago, Feb. 16, 1947, when a blaze gutted the Standard Rug Co.

Yesterdays' blaze started about 11:25 a.m. Arthur Meyer, manager of the drug store, opened a door and saw smoke spiraling from the basement.

Before he could sound an alarm, the fire had destroyed the telephone lines. He ordered the 150 occupants of the store to leave and sent a clerk to evacuate the rest of the building while he rushed to Rowland's to give an alarm.

In the beauty college, about 100 students were finishing morning classes. Only a receptionist was in the photo studio and no one was on the third floor.

Firemen tried to extinguish the blaze in the basement but couldn't find the fire source. Later, they explained the fire had gone into false ceilings between the first floor and basement and flared between walls.

Within 10 minutes, the drug store interior was so hot and full of smoke that firemen were forced out.

For the next two hours, the firemen fought a “ghost blaze.” Smoke billowed from the structure, concealing the seat of the fire, which was moving between walls toward the roof.

About 1 p.m., the blaze burst through in a dozen spots on the roof at the north side of the building. Firemen climbed on roofs of adjoining buildings and used aerial trucks to batter the flames with water.

Another worry soon occupied the firemen and more than 25 city policemen, directed by Major Joseph Heidenreich, at the scene. The feared the north wall, 100-foot long, might collapse. So they roped off a wide area around the building to protect the thousands of spectators from danger. But the walls remained intact.

The fire destroyed the roof and remnants dropped into the third floor. The third floor in turn dumped its load of water and flaming debris into the second floor.

However, a thick ceiling between the drug store and second floor offices did not collapse. It was the only barrier between the basement and the sky above the building when firemen controlled the stubborn blaze.

A fire wall on the second and third floors saved the south half of the roof and lessened fire damage in the south part of the building, firemen explained.

But no fire wall existed in the first floor quarters of the drug store. When the fire stopped, most of the drug store floor had dropped into the basement. Only a counter in the middle of the floor and another at the southwest corner of the store were still upright.

The firemen used about 50 large hose lines during the battle, some of which stretched from hydrants at Calhoun and Washington Boulevard and Lewis and Calhoun Streets. The usually busy intersection of Jefferson and Calhoun Streets was choked with hose.

Fire escapes and nearby trolley wires were covered with an icy beard during the battle. Firemen used extra caution in climbing the ice-encrusted ladders.

Rookie policemen received a baptism during the fire. The young men have been attending classes at the nearby police academy. Yesterday, they were allowed to wear their new uniforms to class. As the fire progressed, the new men were ordered to traffic duty at the fire scene. They were a smoked and bedraggled lot when relieved of duty.

Downtown streets were clogged during the six-hour fire by sightseers and a backwash of Jefferson Street traffic.

Fort Wayne Transit coaches were forced to curtail service along Calhoun Street. Northbound buses stopped at Baker Street and retraced their routes while southbound buses were stopped at Harrison and Columbia Streets and rerouted norht.

Volunteers made numerous trips through the fire scene, bringing coffee and sandwiches to the police and firemen. Phil Psehes, Fort Wayne Restaurant Owner, the Salvation Army and the Red Cross were all commended by Chief Baals and Major Heidenreich for their work in aiding the chilled workers.


“Fire Menaced Site In 1947,” Jeanne Franke (Feb. 20, 1957)

The fire that destroyed the building on the southwest corner of Jefferson and Calhoun Streets yesterday came almost precisely 10 years after a $750,000 fire disaster that menaced the same site.

A strong fire wall, installed only 21/2 months earlier, was credited at that time with saving the buildings which burned yesterday. The Feb. 15, 1947, fire gutted the Standard Rug & Linoleum Co. building at 115 W. Jefferson St. and heavily damaged the Rowland's Furniture Co. building at 1108 S. Calhoun St.

In a turnabout of the 1947 fire, yesterday's blaze gutted the corner building, housing a Meyer Bros. Co. drug store and the Warner Beauty College, but caused little damage to the two adjacent buildings.

Rowland's is just south of the Meyer store and the Standard Rug & Linoleum Co., is west of it.

The Feb. 15, 1947, blaze was even more of a jolt to downtown Fort Wayne because it came less than a month after a fire gutted a two-story brick and frame building at 121 E. Washington Blvd. at the cost of one life and damage estimated at more than $300,000.

Capt. LaVerne Strodel, a 20-year Fire Department veteran, suffered a cerebral hemorrage while fighting the fire on Jan. 16, 1947, and died seven hours after being found unconscious on the roof of the doomed building.

Yesterday's fire bears a striking similarity to the two 1947 winter conflagrations in that none of the three was discovered until the possibility of saving the building in which it started had passed.

The Meyer drug store at Jefferson and Calhoun had only smoke and water damage as a result of the 1947 fire. In operation since 1930, it had been completely remodeled in November 1946, only 21/2 months before the blaze but was able to continue business after repair of damage.

Elwood Heine, Meyer vice president, said yesterday that the only other serious fire loss suffered by the firm was in Goshen about 1940 when its store was destroyed by fire. The firm later built a new and enlarged store on the same site in Goshen.

Heine said late yesterday that the company considers its Jefferson Street store a “total loss.”

He estimated fire loss in stock, fixtures and lease-holder improvements made by this company at roughly $175,000, adding that invoices were being checked to try to establish an exact total.

The loss, he said, was fully insured. The company executive praised the efforts of store manager Alfred Meyer, who discovered the blaze yesterday, and other employees in quickly and efficiently evacuating the premises.

Several officials of the company hurried from general offices at 124 E. Columbia St. to the scene when notified of the fire but were able to do little more than join other spectators.

However, Fred Krueger, Meyer buyer, and Leo Lauer, assistant manager of the burning store, helped out by hurrying to Golden's Men's Wear to borrow coats for girls who had left their own in the flaming building and were shivering in almost freezing temperatures.

The Red Cross and the Salvation Army were on hand with services as the fire fighting continued and nearby restaurants also served food and coffee to firemen.

The Meyer store was one of the more modern Fort Wayne drug stores and had a completely self-service area of the now popular type. It was a popular after-class spot for teenagers because of its proximity to Central and Central Catholic High Schools.


“Walkie-Talkies Come Minutes Before Blaze” (Feb. 20, 1957)

Electronics took a hand yesterday in the Fort Wayne Fire Department's biggest wrestle in 10 years – the Meyer Brothers blaze at Jefferson and Calhoun Streets.

Twenty minutes before the alarm, parcel post packages containing a number of walkie-talkie radio transmitters and receivers were delivered to the parent fire station on East Main Street.

When the alarm came, and it sounded like a hot one, feverish hands ripped open the cartons and the city's signalmen rigged up the portable transmitters and receivers. In a matter of minutes they were pressed into service at strategic command posts around the downtown blaze.

Fire Chief Clinton J. Baals had one of them himself – perched on the roof of the blazing building. From there, he was able to keep in constant touch with the key segments of his fire-fighting team.

The department had intended to experiment with the equipment a bit – but there was no time. And by evening, the new equipment was as much a part of the department as the aerial ladders and hose.

Another factor that drew attention at yesterday's big fire was the minimum of hose failures. For several years, under the direction of Safety Board member Walter A. Krull, the department has been discarding its old hose lines and restocking with new. Officials said it paid off in yesterday's operation.

It was a situation which required the city's firemen to do perhaps six months' work in a matter of hours.


“Gutted Calhoun Store Now Salvage Problem” (Feb. 21, 1957)

While special salvage crews toiled in the rubble of what had been a drug store at Jefferson and Calhoun Streets yesterday, Fire Chief Clinton J. Baals advised the exact cause of Tuesday's big downtown fire still was undetermined.

Building Commissioner Fred W. Menze was not sure about salvage of the fire-gutted brick structure after an inspection yesterday. He said part of the building might have to be razed.

Acting under federal regulations, the special salvage crews were culling the ruins for damaged stocks of drugs and narcotics.

Menze said it “appeared likely” that the building, housing the Meyer Brothers Drug Store, Warner Beauty College, the Jefferson Photo Studio and the Fred Church Music Studio, would have to come down. City officials, insurance company representatives, and owners are to meet soon to decide if remodelers or wreckers should move into the building.

Meanwhile, gleaners supervised by state and city board of health officials, moved into the Meyer's Drug Store quarters on the first floor and to the basement.

Under federal rules, first moves were made to obtain the narcotics stock. They were crated and will be shipped to Internal Revenue Offices in Chicago, where they will be condemned.

Other prescription and non-prescription items in the drug store and stock also will be condemned and burned in a city dumping ground, a state board of health officer explained.

City officials said foodstuffs and meat stocks in the store at the time of the fire must be destroyed.

Also moving through the building were fire department officials still seeking a cause of the blaze. Fire Chief Baals said last night he believed the fire started near the furnace in the basement of the building.

The chief and Commissioner Menze checked the walls of the building and found them apparently still sound after the heat and battering of fire and water Tuesday. At one time during the fire, officials feared the walls would collapse.

Sign up for our History Journal newsletter

Emails are sent on the last Thursday of the month