May 9, 1907
The University building, at the northtwest corner of Ninth and Locust streets, was totally destroyed by fire yesterday afternoon, causing a loss of $125,000 on the building and resulting in the death of Professor Georges De Mare, head of the art department in Central high school, who jumped or fell from a window on the fourth floor of the burning building.
The body of Miss Aurora Wittebart is supposed to be still in the ruins.
The loss to the various tenants cannot be known with any degree of definiteness for some time. With the exception of Montgomery Ward & Co., who occupied the first two floors, most of the occupants of the building were musicians and artists. The Radford pharmacy occupied the room at the corner of Ninth and Locust, and the Kindergarten Supply Company occupied the room immediately to the west of the pharmacy.
The fire caused more excitement than any which has occurred in Kansas City in years, owing to the ancient architecture of the building and the large number of women who had studios in the building, and the fact that several hundred girls were employed by Montgomery Ward & Co. There were many sensational escapes and displays of heroism, the most notable being the rescue of Miss S. Ellen Barnes, a music teacher, by Fireman Charles Braun.
Death by suffocation is thought to have been the fate of Miss Aurora Wittebart, and artist who had an office in the fifth floor of the building, and was there when the fire started. She was last seen by Miss Barnes just as Professor de Mare jumped to his death. She is thought to be the woman Mr. Farrel saw with de Mare, as he groped his way through the smoke to safety. De Mare leaped to death from a window leading out of her studio.
Miss Wittebart is the daughter of a glass manufacturer who lives at Coffeyville, Kas. She was only 22 years of age, and had been studying art and painting in Kansas City for several months, and was to have been married to George Jackson, an employe of the Missouri-Kansas Telephone Company.
"Just before I learned that the building was on fire Professor de Mare was in my studio," said Miss Helen Barnes last night. "We were talking about music and art, and finally he arose to go, saying that he was expecting a visitor in his studio. He walked to the door and opened it. A gust of black smoke burst through the open door, and it was then we realized that the building was on fire. Professor de Mare called to me to get out of the building immediately and started down the hall. I started to follow, but soon realized that I could not find my way through the dense smoke. I went to a window from where I saw Miss Wittebart standing at a window on the floor below. She was near the rear fire escape and I supposed she had descended. Professor de Mare had opened a window and was preparing, I thought, to mount the landing of a fire escape. I returned immediately to my studio and, raising a window, made a feeble attempt to call for help. the smoke strangled me, and I threw my purse out to attract the people below. That was needless, though, for I had been seen by the firemen, and at that time ladders were being rapidly placed to reach me. I saw the fireman who rescued me climbing upward. There was determination in his manner, and I seemed to realize when I looked upon his smoke-begrimed, upturned face that he would surely reach me. It was his determined look that strengthened me and seemed to give me new courage."
The building was constructed nearly twenty years ago for the Y. M. C. A., Grover Cleveland laying the cornerstone in 1887 during his first term as president. It cost $112,000, and after the Y. M. C. A. was compelled to relinquish it the building passed into the possession of the Pepper estate, being in turn sold to the Sunny Slope Realty Company. There was an insurance of $72,000 on the structure.
The first alarm was turned in a few minutes before 3 o'clock by O. W. Hoover, proprietor of the Kindergarten Supply House, next door west from the drug store on the corner. Mr. Hoover heard the girls employed by Montgomery Ward & Co. hurrying down the stairs and out of the building and soon afterwards smelled the smoke. He called up the fire department and was informed that no alarm of fire had yet been turned in. Mr. Hoover thereupon turned in the alarm.
Dr. William West, formerly a fireman and later a police surgeon, who ha an office in the Rialto building, saw the smoke pouring form the building and was one of the first physicians to reach the scene of the fire. He attended Fireman Braun, who rescued Miss Barnes, and did valiant and effective service throughout the fire in extending first aid to the injured.
While Henderson, Massey and Miller were trying to stamp the fire out, Mrs. Lucille Baker, in charge of the squad in that particular room, began getting her forty subordinates out of the place. Manager W. P. Walker had 200 girls at work in what once was the swimming pool. Their only avenue of escape was to walk toward the burning hemp and up a temporary staircase. In the most amazing manner, the manager succeeded in getting the clerks to stand perfectly still until they could march out of the place in twos, and in that manner he got every one of the 200 out of the pit and to the street level without the slightest confusion. There was every possibility of a jam at the staircase, which could only have resulted in a great loss of life.