December 24, 1909
CHARRED WALLS OF THE RIALTO BUILDING, ALL THAT REMAINS OF A "FIRE TRAP."
Flames fed by a broken gas main destroyed the Rialto building at the southwest corner of Grand avenue and Ninth street at 3:30 o'clock yesterday morning. The building was erected in 1887 by Albert Marty, its present owner. The fire started in the basement and raged virtually unchecked for three hours until everything inflammable had been consumed. Nothing remains but the ruined and ice-coated walls. The loss is estimated at $300,000.
The building was one of the few remaining big Kansas City fire traps which are a terror to the fire department. Almost entirely of frame construction inside, it burned like tinder. In the language of Assistant Chief Alex Henderson, "not all the fire companies in Missouri could have stopped it."
The fire was noticed first by J. W. Johnson, a negro janitor, who had for many years been a fixture in the building. Johnson was sitting in one of the offices on the second floor at 3 o'clock in the morning, when he was startled by a rumbling sound like the report of a muffled cannon. He jumped from the chair in which he had been resting after several hours of hard work in policing the building, and bounded down the stairway.
He was confronted by dense smoke, and forgetting everything but that there were several person in the building who were in imminent danger of losing their lives, he bounded up the steps and shouted fire from each landing. In this manner he aroused Dr. J. W. Gaines, Dr. Robert O. Gross, Dr. Emil Thielman, Dr. Oliver F. Jones, Dr. A. Talbot, Dr. B. E. Jordan, Dr. J. B. Jones and Dr. Frank Jones. On the fifth floor Johnson came upon Charles R. Manley, senior physical examiner of the Y. M. C. A., in a semi-conscious condition, the result of striking his head against a post in his efforts to escape while groping his way through the dark, smoke-filled hallways. Johnson himself was beginning to feel the effects of the smoke, but not thinking of his own life in his efforts to save others half carried and dragged Mr. Manley down the stairway and out into the streets to safety. In the meantime, A. E. Perrine, night watchman in the building of McGowan, Small & Morgan, gas grantees, which is the first building south of the Rialto, discovered smoke and noticing the glare of flames which by that time had gained considerable headway in the trunk factory, hastened to a telephone and turned in the alarm.
The fire department soon was on the scene. The fire at first looked to be easy to extinguish. The firemen had the flames smothered, when a terrific explosion, caused by the breaking of a gas main, shot the flames up through the building to the top floors. At the time of this explosion Assistant Chief Alex Henderson and a squad of men were on the first floor of the building. The force of the explosion shook the entire building and as the flames were spreading to all parts of the structure, it was as much as a man's life was worth to stay inside, as another explosion could be expected at any time. While Chief Henderson and his men were extricating themselves from the trap, Captain Pelletier, with several men, were groping their way about in the basement of the Ninth street entrance. In what seemed to be hours, they emerged through the smoke and debris into the street. It was none too soon, as the third explosion occurred a few minutes later and had any of the firemen remained in the building they would have been buried beneath the floors and walls. By this time twenty companies had arrived and were throwing streams of water into the burning building from all sides, but it was of no use. The interior of the building was mostly wood and the outside wall kept the streams from getting to the center of the building, where the fire was worst.
The Rialto was the only old-time building of any consequence on Grand avenue. Albert Marty, the owner, is an active real estate and building man of Kansas City. He purchased the ground in 1886 and in 1887 constructed a five-story building on the corner. In 1889 he purchased forty-eight feet on the south side of the corner lot and the same year erected the south half of the building which burned yesterday morning.
The building was occupied by many prominent physicians and dentists, some of whom have been in the building twenty-five years.
"The number of occupants is in the neighborhood of 100," said Dr. H. D. McQuade, who had offices in the building for many years. "Many of us will be up against it for offices for some time, but I expect to contract for offices on the fifth floor of the Keith & Perry building tomorrow. Many of us received offers from other physicians to share their offices while looking for locations."
The building was valued at $125,000, although at the time of its erection it cost in the neighborhood of $200,000. That was more than twenty years ago. There was $81,500 insurance carried on the structure. The heaviest loser among the occupants was Hugo A. Brecklein, a druggist, occupying the first floor. Mr. Brecklein estimated his loss at $20,000, with $12,000 insurance.
J. H. Langan, son of John P. Langan, a grocer at 4601 Independence avenue, was walking north on Grand avenue yesterday morning when the fire started, and in attempting to awaken some of the men who were sleeping in the offices, he broke the glass in one of the doors, severely cutting his hand. But he saved the life of a man who was sleeping through all the disturbance, and succeeded in helping him to the street.
At least sixty physicians and twenty dentists lost their office furnishings and instruments in the Rialto building fire yesterday. The average loss for each tenant is said to have been about $700, and that only a small part of it was covered by insurance.
For years the Rialto has been the doctors' office building of Kansas City. Many of the most prominent physicians of the city were established there. Owing to the fact that in many buildings dentists and physicians are not allowed to rent offices, because the odors arising form the mixtures of medicines is objected to by other tenants, this building has long been recognized as the headquarters of men engaged in these two professions.
About 1,000 specimens of prehistoric stone implements and two ancient violins were cherished treasures of Dr. A. H. Cordier, which were lost in the Rialto fire. Dr. Cordier occupied room 310, third floor.
A collector of prehistoric implements, Dr. Cordier, on trips to Mexico, Alaska, Ohio, Kentucky, Arkansas and through Missouri, got several thousand specimens, and he had about 1,000 of them on display in his offices. His is a collector of old violins and had two of these instruments, which he prized highly, in his rooms. Another relic which Dr. Cordier lost was the mounted head of a mountain sheep which he shot while on a hunting trip in British Columbia. Dr. Cordier's office had been in the Rialto building eighteen years.
A long distance survey of the Rialto ruins makes it appear that Dr. R. V. Anderson, a dentist, is the only tenant of the burned structure whose effects were not destroyed, and he recalls the fact that once before in a fire in the Rialto building he also was lucky.
Dr. Anderson's office has been in the building nearly eighteen years, ever since he began to practice, and some years ago ago fire broke out beneath his office, and his rooms, enveloped in smoke and flame, seemed doomed. The firemen, however, extinguished the blaze before his effects suffered any serious damage.
At the burning of the Rialto building yesterday morning the firemen were greatly handicapped by dangers from exploding gas, and they were in continual danger of being burned by flame of escaping gas. Had the building been equipped with a Siebens' shut-off gas valve it would have been possible for the firemen the moment they reached the fire to turn off the gas in the entire building and thereby lessen the danger occasioned by the escaping gas. The building code requires the installation of gas shut-off devices on all buildings, but for some reason the ordinance has never been enforced.