“These Big Halls, When They Take Fire, Burn Like Hayricks”
In half an hour it was pretty much all over—except for the putting out, the cleaning up, and the starting over.
The Rev. Dr. Hermon D. Jenkins had been pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church since 1895, nearly five years. His sermons had established him as an outstanding preacher shortly after he had assumed his responsibilities at the church. Not too much before his arrival, the Second Presbyterian congregation had split in two, and the half that left established another congregation. There seemed to be a reluctance to talk about what caused the split, but one possible factor was the use of a Methodist as a supply, or fill-in minister, between the time Dr. Jenkins’ predecessor left and he himself arrived. Dr. Jenkins had worked diligently for nearly five years to build the membership back to the level it had been before the split, and the church had once again become a vibrant congregation. He and his wife and daughter lived in the vicarage, or manse, as the Presbyterians called it, that stood on the same property at 13th and Central as the church building itself. The manse was filled with six generations worth of family “relics,” as well as Dr. Jenkins’ highly regarded personal library.
Sometime before one o’clock, John P. Loomas, who ran the new Convention Hall, went to lunch. He had been hired to take the reins of the Convention Hall after years of great success at being in charge of the annual Priests of Pallas celebration, Kansas City’s answer to Mardi Gras. Loomas may have headed out around 12:30, when W.F. Henderson and seven other men who worked for Loomas at the Convention Hall had left the building to go to have their lunch.
The big push for building the Convention Hall came on October 6, 1893, the day after that year’s Priests of Pallas ball, “when the most important and interesting of the year’s social events was carried on within the cramped limits of the flimsy, unbecoming and ill-situated building with which the Priests of Pallas have been obliged to content themselves for these too many years.”
The Kansas City Star’s editorial explained that our city, “by virtue of its location, its railway facilities and its commercial importance should be, pre-eminently, the ‘show town,’ the entertainment place, the fair city of the Southwest.” Drawing from the inspiration of Madison Square Garden, the editorial said the hall should remain “free from all narrow personal interests, [while] representing only a public purpose and [should be] done for the glory and credit and profit of all Kansas City.”
A year and a day later, on October 7, 1894, the Star laid out plans for the project. Land for the hall was bought on December 2, 1897, and a competition for designing the hall was announced. On March 18, 1898, the Star announced that architect Frederick E. Hill’s design had won the competition. Projected cost: $225,000. (The inflation rate from 1900 to 2012 is about a multiple of 29, so allowing just for basic inflation, the cost would be $6,525,000. This is without factoring that the cost of construction has outpaced the rest of inflation.) They started raising money for the hall by subscriptions and selling stock. They laid the cornerstone on August 11, 1898, and started construction. The formal opening of the hall (though there was still a fair amount of work to be completed) took place about six and a half months later, on February 22, 1899. The highlight of the opening was a concert by John Philip Sousa’s band.
The outside of the building measured 193 feet by 314 feet, with interior floor space of 153,100 square feet. The main hall could hold 20,000. The outside walls were stone and brick, and the huge roof was supported by steel girders secured in steel piers.
On the inside, the floors and trim were all made of soft pine.
W.F. Henderson and his seven fellow workers headed to lunch at 12:30. W.F. had worked a good portion of the night before.
Across the street, the young students at the Lathrop School had headed to lunch around noon.
There never was any official determination as to the cause.
The day was very hot, very dry. A stiff wind blew from the southeast.
One of the first, if not the first person to notice something had gone wrong and so sound the alarm was G.G. Frost, who ran a grocery at 13th and Wyandotte. Frost said he was at the front end of his store, across the street from Convention Hall, when he “noticed little curls of smoke creeping along the east side” of the building. Rushing to the door he saw two or three children who were yelling “Fire!” By the time he returned from the back of his store to turn in the alarm,
the flames had burst out. A workman, who was working on the roof with a tar pail in his hand, had not yet discovered that the building was on fire. When I reached the front door he was languidly putting on his coat. His attention was called by the shouts from the street and on looking back he discovered that his way of escape was cut off by the flames. He waved his arms frantically and cried for help.
Frost further said, “Within ten minutes of the time I discovered the first signs of the fire the hall was ablaze all over and beyond hope.”
John Cleary and Dr. Morrison were driving by the Hall at about 1:00, discussing the Democratic convention, when they “saw a sheet of flame shoot out of the roof of the hall at the northeast corner. This was directly over the engine and boiler room, and although we heard no explosion I supposed the fire started there. In two minutes the entire roof was in flames.”
The man working on the roof was at first identified as a carpenter named Roby, though this was later corrected and the man identified as a contractor named James Brennan. Until the sheet of flame shot out from the roof, Brennan had been unaware that anything was happening. Made suddenly aware by the flames, he made his way to the cornice at the south, or front end of the hall, just as the ladder truck arrived on the scene. Brennan leaned against the cornice. Onlookers probably relaxed a bit, because he appeared to be in a relatively safe place—until the wind suddenly shifted to the north, driving the fire straight toward the worker. The firemen moved quickly to raise the large ladder into place, but it must have appeared that they were moving in slow motion, taking about four minutes to get it into position. Brennan must have been relieved when a fireman came up the ladder, and helped Brennan onto it. The fireman appeared to be getting ready to explore the condition of the roof, when his superior ordered him down.
To this day we don’t know what caused the fire, and from the first moments there were disagreements about both the cause and the facts that surrounded the fire’s start. Fire Chief George Hale declared to the newspapers that it had been started by fire bugs. John Loomas said it was faulty wiring. Cleary thought the fire had started in the engine and boiler room. Several people said that it had started on the stage. Chief Hale said, also, that it had been caused by the carelessness of some of the workers, and had started behind the stage where a lot of rubbish had accumulated, saying that he had warned Loomas about the danger of not having the rubbish cleared away. Loomas said, “I had the building thoroughly cleaned yesterday, and all the inflammable material was taken out. There had not been any fire in the boiler room since the democratic meeting on Monday night, and there was no fire of any kind in the building.” There were speculations that the fire had been caused by workers who smoked inside the building, or by a “negro worker” cooking his meal.
Whatever the cause, once the first smoke was sighted, the dryness of the day, the stiffness of the wind, and the huge amount of wood inside the building itself quickly let the small flame rage and roar into a monstrous size, consuming the fuel with a voracious appetite, like a glutton at a Roman feast. According to newspaper accounts, more than one person in the gathering crowd compared the sight to what Nero must have seen when Rome burned.
The heat given off by the fire was so intense that it drove the crowd back, and as the vast amounts of wood inside the Convention Hall were consumed by the flames, the wood began to disintegrate, to break apart into burning chunks and firebrands. The stiff, shifting wind that blew around and through the crumbling building lifted the brands and carried them off, depositing them throughout the surrounding neighborhood.
Around fifteen minutes after the first smoke had been sighted and the first alarms had been given, a low, growling cacophony screeched throughout the area as the roof of the Hall began to collapse, spewing still more chunks of burning wood flying through the sky, carrying further destruction throughout the buildings for several blocks around.
The fire had already jumped across the street and caught on the roof of Lathrop School. August Pfeiffer, the school janitor, smelled smoke and ran quickly to the basement. He was returning to the first floor when heat shattered the windows. Pfeiffer ran out the back entrance, but, he said, the roof and window sashes were already blazing.
The Lathrop students had just barely returned from their noon recess when the teachers became aware of the fire and how quickly it was engulfing the Convention Hall. They quickly got the children back out of the school, helped by a police officer, the many fire drills they had gone through helping them to move in a quick and orderly manner, till they were behind the fire lines where they mingled with the crowds.
Only a brief amount of time elapsed between the collapse of the roof of the Convention Hall and the gutting of Lathrop School.
At some point around this time, W.F. Henderson and his seven fellow employees returned to go back to work after their lunch. There is a strong possibility that W.F. saw his father Alex Henderson at the fire. Alex was one of Kansas City’s assistant fire chiefs, and arrived at the scene within four minutes of the first alarm. On his way, Chief Henderson called to Tim Gaffney, the switchboard operator, to put in the second and third alarm, which Gaffney had already taken upon himself to do.
One of the wind’s main targets was the Second Presbyterian Church that occupied the land across the street from the Convention Hall.
Continued in Part Two.
Resources Used for 1900 Convention Hall Fire blog
Corrie, Frank G., The First One Hundred Years: Second Presbyterian Church [Centennial, 1865-1965]. Kansas City, Mo., . MVSC 285 C82F
Hale, George C., History of the World’s Greatest Fires. Kansas City, Mo., Press of F. Hudson Publishing Co. [c. 1905] MVSC 614.84 H16
Hale, George C., Souvenir of Kansas City and Her Fire Department to the Grand Paris Fire Congress and Exposition, Paris, August 13, 1900. Kansas City,Mo., Hailman-Reily Printing Co. . MVSC Q 099 H16S 1900
Hill, John B., Second Church Reminiscences: an address on the history of the Second Presbyterian Church, Kansas City, Missouri. Kansas City, Mo. . MVSC Q 096.1 H64S
The Kings and Queens of the Range., Kansas City, Mo., The Kings and Queens of the Range. [Periodical] MVSC F 338.17 K55, v. 3, no. 27
White, Edwin H., Rebuilding Convention Hall: an episode in the life of a city. Kansas City, Mo. . MVSC Q 977.8411 W58R [Manuscript]
Kansas City Journal, April 1900
Kansas City Star, April 1900
Kansas City Times, April 1900
MVSC Newspaper Clippings Files
About the Author
Dr. John Arthur Horner of the Missouri Valley Room has a Ph.D. in Dramatic Art from UC-Santa Barbara, as well as a deep love of history. He is an award-winning playwright and member of the Dramatists Guild of America. He lives in Independence with his wife, two pianos, and their multitude of books.