(KC 1900 Series: #14)
(photo above: In the background, the gutted remains of the fire’s victims. From Left to right, Second Presbyterian Church (steeple & attached), unidentified residential or commercial building on Broadway, Lathrop School, Convention Hall (long row of arches), partial view of the Williamson block flats directly north of the hall. In the center a small crowd next to some of the few salvageable materials, and foreground and right, small lots with stables, worksheds, small houses, etc., and larger tenement housing)
In this dual-topic post, it’s time to consider causes and effects of the Convention Hall Fire. The Causes segment refers to the single, technical causes of the fire, plain and simple. On the other hand, the fire’s Effects are varied and nuanced. How does a major disaster affect the morale, the economy, the priorities of a city? Whose reputations would rise or sink as a result of the calamity? And the city’s reputation, how was that effected, and would it also effect the city’s ability to keep the all-important Democratic Convention, scheduled to open exactly 3 months to the date after the fire?
Let me be clear right up here. There were no conspiracies or heinous crimes behind the fire. And there are no singular heroic deeds of sacrifice and bold action in resurrecting the hall. But there are some fascinating backstories that I’ve never seen in any of the modern accounts of the event. It’s possible I’ve missed them, but not for lack of searching.
The Convention Hall fire consumed virtually any possible evidence of the cause of the fire. Even if there had been evidence, forensic investigation in this era was limited Inevitably then, the exact cause of the fire was never determined, but it was officially declared accidental.
The most likely cause was electrical, based on the most informed comments quoted in the paper in the days following the fire. It was disclosed in the editions of the Star on the evening of the fire and the next evening that well before the fire, back when the building was nearing completion, the wiring was deemed to be inadequate by industry standards, even though the city inspectors had approved it. They approved it because the city’s building codes process had been followed, even though it was out of date. The wiring contractors, the H.R. Electric Company and the electrical engineering firm, Hodge, Walsh & Loring, had installed the wiring as directed by the plans. Before they could be paid, the city’s electrician and the insurance underwriters had to approve the work. Insurance for the hall had been underwritten by many companies so as to minimize the risk to any one company. The underwriters and the city inspectors all approved the work, and the contractors were paid.
Subsequently, Frank Fetter step forward to dispute those approvals. Fetter was the manager of a bureau that was not named but according to the Star, was where “all the insurance companies get their information about building.” Fetter pronounced the wiring as inadequate.
“It was done after a fashion that is prohibited by the national underwriters,” Fetter said. “The rules do not permit running as many lights from one wire as they insisted upon running. I don’t know that the electric wires caused the fire, but where so many lights run from one wire the current runs to 300 or 400 ampheres, and that produces heat.”
The wires to which Fetter objected serviced 3,200 arc lights. Arc lights were used then for lighting large spaces, like factory floors or arenas. They were also used to bring intense light to small areas, like the stage in the Convention Hall. All it would take is for just one lamp in the string to malfunction and overheat, conducting that heat through the length of the wire and igniting fire along any combustible surface it encountered, which was most of the interior of the hall. The arc light wiring connected at the main junction on the building’s northwest corner, creating a probable place for ignition and for spreading throughout the building quickly..
An electrical fire would explain the fire’s ability to move as it did throughout the building without creating the kind of billowing smoke that a rubbish fire usually makes. The fire had to have been burning for a long time to create enough heat to cause the front of Lathrop School to be hot to the touch even before the fire broke through the roof of the Convention Hall.
Eye witness accounts corroborated Fetter’s theories. There were witnesses inside the hall at the time, who saw the blaze’s beginnings. The men were C.B. Norton, a local wholesale jeweler, and his two out-of-town customers, E.V. Moorsel and R.J. Maulsby. When the visitors expressed an interest in the new hall, Norton offered to take them to see it over the lunch hour. In a newspaper account shortly after the fire, Norton recalls they entered the building just before 1:00 pm. They walked right in, entering the building from the southeast corner, passing only a few other people. Everything seemed normal until they reached the center of the large arena floor and, looking around, saw the flames at the northwest corner near the stage. Even after they could hear shouting in the street and a voice that said the fire had been called in, they remained a few minutes more to watch the fire progress. “The tongues of flame that were just starting their work when we first saw them rapidly grew into blazing sheets that climbed up the sounding board and ate their way to the roof,” Norton told the Star reporter. “The area of the blaze broadened on all sides and the entire north end of the hall became a mass of flaming red as we watched. The blaze reached the ropes that supported the curtain and ate them away. The big roll of canvas fell with a crash that shook the building and as the sparks became too numerous we hasted from the building and took a stand at the church corner. We were driven from there a few moments later by the sparks and heat together.”
Without its first-class venue, there was great doubt, locally and across the country, whether Kansas City could find the capacity to hold the convention, particularly given it was scheduled to open in just three months. There were three major threats to Kansas City’s goal of holding the Democratic Convention on schedule:
- The efforts of other cities to convince the national party they would be better off changing plans now and selecting another site for the convention.
- The financing of the new building, which had to be in place soon so work could get started and keep moving.
- Revisions to the design to improve fire protection, and the actual rebuild, which had the usual odds of facing problems with labor, materials, scheduling, and weather, just to name a few.
If the Democratic Party backed out, local enthusiasm for the rebuild project almost certainly would wane. The purses of the corporate financiers and the common citizens would snap shut. It might never again be possible to regain the civic commitment to a Convention Hall, and if that weren’t bad enough, a large empty chunk of downtown Kansas City would remain a sad reminder of failure.
Almost immediately, it became clear that some elements of the building would have to be temporary, only serviceable for the term of the convention, and subsequently made permanent after the convention was over. As part of considering the possibility of a temporary facility, immediately upon hearing about the fire representatives came from St. Louis came to Kansas City, ostensibly to give advice on the quick construction of a hall, having recently completed a similar but much smaller venue in seventy days. St. Louis assured Kansas City that it came only to help its Missouri sister city. Should Kansas City decide to build a temporary structure, they were welcome to use St. Louis’ plans. Said a member of the St. Louis advisory delegation, “I don’t believe there is a business man in St. Louis who did not feel a genuine sorrow when he heard of Kansas City’s loss yesterday. We here want to do everything we can and offer every encouragement to her at this time. St. Louis doesn’t want to be put down in the vulture class, like Cincinnati and Milwaukee, who were hovering over your town, asking for the convention before your building had ceased to burn, but if it is found that Kansas City cannot handle it we will make an attempt to keep it in Missouri. We have a hall not quite as large as your Convention Hall, but it is big enough.”
Even as firefighters and laborers worked to clean up the disaster site, the city of Cincinnati was letting it be known through the Associated Press that it was interested, as was Kansas City’s rival in the final round, Milwaukee. But the same day as the fire, the Star ran a small piece, “Will Meet Here Anyway.” The article was filled with mostly reservedly hopeful statements of various members of the Democratic Party higher-ups, from Missouri’s former Governor Stone to the Secretary of the Democratic Executive Committee. But the most affirming statement came from the secretary of the Democratic Executive Committee, who offered, “Any person who has come in contact with the business men of Kansas City must have been impressed with the fact that the town contains a higher degree of public spirit than any other city in the United States, and I believe the people there will provide suitable accommodations for the national Democratic convention. It seems to me that the national committee will certainly aid them in every way in its power.”
And while the Democratic Party did not have to step in to play a direct role in getting Kansas City ready for the convention, the Party’s reiteration of its plan was enough to quash any serious discussion of moving the convention, which immediately helped solidify Kansas City’s attempts to start rebuilding the hall right away.
It may sound like local myth or great press, but it is absolutely true that as soon as the Commercial Club crowd heard the Convention Hall was on fire, they set about raising money all over again. While reports differ slightly, the figure that came up most frequently was that they were able to raise (not hard cash, but firm commitments) about $35,000 before the fire was extinguished. The Commercial Club was not alone in this spontaneous fundraising, but having been the flag bearer for the first Convention Hall, it was natural and inevitable that the lead of the rebuilding movement would position the Commercial Club members and staff as the public faces of the effort.
There was a critical need for financing as soon as possible because there was an even greater need to demonstrate to the city, the nation and most of all, the Democratic Party that Kansas City could rebuild. The rebuild would turn out to be considerably cheaper than the original, because big ticket items among the original expenses like the property acquisition, the predevelopment steps, and the design wouldn’t be repeated. But the speed required to do the work would add back costs when it came to expediting materials. The construction estimate was already about $180,000, with no contingency attached. The insurance on the building amounted to $150,050. The coverage was spread among 92 different companies, many responsible for only $500 each, and eleven responsible for between $4,000 and $5,000 apiece. The Building Committee had another $10,000 in the bank. And though there had originally been some hope of salvaging some of the trusses, they were declared unusable, but would be scrapped for another $8,000. The $35,000 in subscriptions that was collected from the public in those first days after the fire took the total available funds to about $203,000.
The Commercial Club probably would have been able to cover the costs based on the money from all sources they had in hand in the first week. But, since no one yet knew what the final cost would be, because any remaining money could be used for additional investment in the building now or in the future, and because the public subscription drive was, as it had originally been, the best way of making sure the citizens of Kansas City felt truly invested in the success of the “people’s building,” the decision was made to continue the subscription drive.
One of the overarching effects of the fire on the city was the doubt cast by many that it wouldn’t be possible to rebuild the hall in three months. Some of the most persuasive voices were noted architects and builders in the city, who seemed to be in agreement that it would be an “absolutely impossibility,” according to the newspaper. Their reason was the steel, which everyone believed could not be fabricated to specifications and shipped to Kansas City in time..
The architectural plans would need some revision, but not before the basic construction could begin. So it was decided that Frederick Hill, the architect who had designed and built the original hall, would be retained for the rebuild. Commercial Club Secretary Clendening took the lead on contacting the metal manufacturing companies, to determine the earliest possible date for duplicating the ironwork and steel trusses. He contacted one company in Minneapolis about the ironwork, but the steel trusses were more imperative, and more difficult to have produced quickly. Several other members of the Commercial Club, with one connection or another to a short list of three national steel producers, reached out to them about their ability to meet Kansas City’s needs. While the others were still contemplating and calculating what it would take to produce the trusses, the Carnegie works in Pittsburg responded, pledging to produce three trusses deliverable in six weeks, and three more every week until the work was completed. The directors wasted no time, and voted to accept the Carnegie proposal.
The one and a half million board feet for the original building had been furnished by the Kansas City Lumber Company. When contacted by Chairman Campbell of the original Building Committee, company Secretary and Commercial Club member George Gray not only pledged that the lumber would be provided on schedule, but that the cost would be the same as it had been when construction on the original hall in 1897. In the four years that had since passed, the price of lumber had risen nearly forty percent.
The Building Committee and the Hall’s Board of Directors may have seen these early offers as signs of victory over the greatest challenges they faced in meeting their July 4 deadline. But in the way of almost every construction project completed since perhaps the Pyramids, the usual snags and delays kept the board and committee members individually involved in making the project work. Carnegie’s pledge for the trusses fell apart when they failed to meet the schedule they proposed. The job scheme had been designed for an efficiency that presumed each trade would follow the other in proper sequence, working in sequence from the south end of the hallto the north. When installation of the trusses, one of the most basic building elements, was delayed, it stalled every trade in the queue behind it. And beyond their delay, even when the trusses arrived, the crew that had been hired to salvage the burned trusses that littered the worksite was barely making any progress.
Finally there were problems with the laborers. Because of Carnegie’s failure to produce, the contract was given to Gillette-Herzog from Minneapolis, who brought their own non-union workers to install the trusses. The work, they explained, was better done by those with the specialized training, which, given the company’s area of expertise, the workers definitely had. They added they also had hired a few of the top men from the local unions. Labor disputes of all types continued through the rebuilding of the Hall. It’s a complicated story involving all the trades, with continuous lockouts creating a herky-jerky feel to the pace of progress. The Commercial Club and their supporters simply wanted to have the hall ready by July 4. The various labor unions and industrial councils wanted to remind the community of promises made and speeches given underscoring the project as the “people’s building,” in every sense of the word, including its provision of a working wage for all the laborers on the site – union and non-union. And contractors were anxious about meeting their individual deadlines, and thereby avoiding any financial penalties.
In the end, Gillette-Herzog finished installing the steel trusses three weeks ahead of their promised deadline of June 21, and the work now progressed smoothly from the south end to the north. The labor disputes were resolved in time to get to the hall completed sufficiently for the Democratic Convention. And though victory was declared, and no real mention of the matter was made during the convention, the hall was, in fact, incomplete, and many of the interior spaces and fixtures were barely finished enough to be serviceable.
The hall would not be complete until the end of the year, just in time for the city’s end-of-the century New Year’s Eve celebration. They would call it the Century Ball.