The Worst Fire in Kansas City History

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Postcard of the Coates House Hotel
Postcard of the Coates House Hotel
Kersey Coates
Kersey Coates
Coates House Hotel, full frontal and side view, 1950
Coates House Hotel, full frontal and side view, 1950
Interior view of lobby, 1910
Interior view of lobby, 1910

At about 4:00 a.m. on January 28, 1978, a catastrophic fire broke out at the Coates House Hotel on Quality Hill near downtown Kansas City, Missouri. By the time that the fire was controlled around 8:00 a.m., the south part of the historic building was nearly destroyed and 20 people had died. After the ashes settled, the overriding question facing the city was whether the historic hotel would be demolished or restored and revitalized.

Kersey Coates, the builder and namesake of the hotel, was an important civic leader in Kansas City's early history. He came to Kansas City in 1854 and worked as a land developer, railroad promoter, served as colonel in a pro-Union militia unit, and was a founder of the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. His most significant work in land development was the Quality Hill area. He started the development by building the opulent Broadway Hotel and Coates Opera House in what was little more than a pasture, at the present-day corner of 10th and Broadway.

Construction began on the Broadway Hotel (later renamed the Coates House Hotel) after designs were completed in 1857, but work halted when the Civil War began. The Union army boarded over the open foundation and used the site as a cavalry barracks as a part of the Camp Union garrison. Following the war, construction was finally completed in 1868, and a luxurious neighborhood for the wealthy grew up around the opera house and the hotel.

Through the early 20th century, the Coates House Hotel remained among the most prestigious and luxurious in Kansas City, and its facilities served as an important public gathering place for parties, meetings, and dances. After an extensive remodel in the late 1880s, it contained a diner, a florist shop, a fine bonnet shop, and Turkish baths. Among its many famous guests were Presidents Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt; Edwin Booth (brother of Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth); and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.

By the 1970s, however, the Coates House Hotel had lost much of its luster. Population movements out of downtown and into the suburbs after World War II left the Quality Hill area depleted in population and wealth. While it was still in business, the hotel was far past its physical and social prime. It served primarily as a short-term apartment complex for transients who paid a weekly rate of $12.

The hotel's recent decline, however, did not diminish the scale of loss from the fire in 1978. On January 28, at 4:00 a.m., a fire broke out on one of the upper floors of the south side of the building. The four-alarm fire spread quickly, giving residents little time to react. With temperatures hovering around five degrees, they fled the building with little more than their pajamas. When the conflagration was finally brought under control, the Salvation Army offered temporary housing to over 100 residents that were left homeless. Twenty residents perished in the inferno. Several of these victims chose to jump from the fifth or sixth floors of the building rather than face the flames. Measured by loss of life, it was the worst fire in Kansas City history.

Many area residents assumed that the remains of the Coates House Hotel would be razed to the ground, even though the north section of the building was mostly intact. Instead, the hotel was rebuilt and the Quality Hill area was revitalized. The Historic Kansas City Foundation (HKCF), a local organization that advocates for historic preservation, purchased the building in July, 1979 to prevent its destruction until a buyer could be found that would restore the building. In 1984, the McCormack Baron Salazar company purchased the hotel from HKCF and rebuilt it. The company also redeveloped much of the rest of the Quality Hill area. Today the Coates House Hotel serves as luxury apartments and condominiums. The revitalization of the Coates House Hotel does not undo the tragedy of the 1978 fire, but it has preserved an important architectural piece of Kansas City history.

 

Read full biographical sketches of people involved with the Coates House Hotel, prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library:

 

View images relating to the Coates House Hotel that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

Check out the following books and articles about the Coates House Hotel, held by the Kansas City Public Library:

 

Continue researching the Coates House Hotel using archival materials from the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

References:

Art Brisbane, "Reviving City with Quality," Kansas City Star (March 9, 1992).

Brian Burnes, "Real Estate Developer's Plaque is Back in Coates House," Kansas City Star (August 15, 2008).

George Fuller Green, A Condensed History of the Kansas City Area: Its Mayors and Some V.I.P.s (Kansas City, MO: The Lowell Press, 1968), 45.

Shirl Kasper, "Monumental Battle - Mess With a Historic Building in Kansas City - And You May Have the Outspoken Jane Flynn to Contend With," Kansas City Star (July 15, 2001).

Barbara Magerl, "Biography of Kersey Coates (1923-1887), Civic Leader," Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library.

Giles Carroll Mitchell, There Is No Limit: Architecture and Sculpture in Kansas City (Kansas City: Brown-White Co., 1934), 118-123.

Sam Mildred Ray, "Coates House Hotel," Kansas City Times (March 7, 1981, February 10, 1978), Kansas City Star (March 7, 1970).

"Calamities and Crime - Human Tragedies and Nature's Fury," Kansas City Star (July 24, 2005).

"Hotel Blaze Claims 14th Victim," Chicago Tribune (January 30, 1978).

"9 Killed in Hotel Blaze," Chicago Tribune (January 29, 1978).

"9 Are Dead and 9 Injured as Fire Sweeps Historic Kansas City Hotel," New York Times (January 29, 1978).

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a digital history specialist and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. He earned a doctorate in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column. For assistance with general local history questions, please contact the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
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