A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky by Heart: The Squire’s Sketches of Lexington flames interest in city’s most noted fires

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

I recently picked up a copy of noted Lexington historian J. Winston Coleman Jr.’s book, The Squire’s Sketches of Lexington (Henry Clay Press, 1972). After reading through about a third of the text, I was struck by the frequent mention of large fires in the city happening during the time period starting in the late 1700s, resulting in the loss of many well-known buildings.

That realization generated interest, and with eagerness, I read through the rest of the book and wrote down the names and places where the fires occurred. Many of the fire-related losses, I found, have interesting connections to contemporary Lexington.

These historical accounts noted by Coleman in the book ended in 1972, the year that Coleman’s work was published, so I’m not sure what transpired after that point in terms of the frequency of major fires. Following are some of the noted fires in Lexington’s history.

Even as far back as 1775 in Lexington, a German Lutheran one-and-a-half story church building at Mill and Upper streets, burned. The thriving First Methodist Church stands there today. Coleman wrote that in January, 1803, “the small stone county clerk’s office in the rear of Levi Todd’s residence, on the Richmond Pike, burned, and with it, most of its records.” Arson was likely the cause, and the motive suspected was an attempt to destroy the land records.

Transylvania University’s administration building, standing near the middle of Gratz Park, was destroyed by fire in May of 1829. One of those escaping was noted Kentucky firebrand and slavery abolitionist, Cassius M. Clay

In 1819, the record shows two major fires occurred during the month of March. The two-story Mason’s Hall at Walnut and Short burned, as well as the county jail and Luke Usher’s Tavern, called “Don’t Give Up the Ship.” It was located between Limestone and Upper streets, on the north side of Short Street.

Transylvania University’s administration building, standing near the middle of Gratz Park, was destroyed by fire in May of 1829. One of those escaping was noted Kentucky firebrand and slavery abolitionist, Cassius M. Clay.

The Odd Fellows Hall (which housed the Opera House on the second floor), at Main and Broadway, was, according to the book, “built in 1856 at a cost of $40,000 and was destroyed by fire on Jan. 13, 1886.” The building was a very important meeting house for Lexington citizens during the antebellum period.

In 1865, First Baptist Church was built on West Main, facing Short, after it had burned twice earlier. Less than two years later, it was destroyed by a fire again and, according to Coleman, “started by workmen repairing the tin roof.”

An historical icon in downtown Lexington, Main Street’s Phoenix Hotel, burned in 1879. It incurred a loss of an estimated $150,000, an incredible sum for that time period. It was later rebuilt. It was a focal place where horsemen stayed during the racing season, and dignitaries such as several American presidents lodged.

The Park Plaza and Phoenix Park stand at the location today after the Phoenix was demolished in 1981 for Wallace Wilkinson’s plan to build the World Coal Center skyscraper, which never materialized.

In 1882, Lexington entered the age of mule-drawn street cars. A year later, the car barns and mule sheds were destroyed by fire at the Fourth and Race streets location, killing 59 mules and two horses and destroying 14 cars, according to Coleman.

As Lexington moved into the 20th century, huge fires continued to shake the lives of the city’s citizenry. In 1906, the Cincinnati Southern Railroad passenger station burned, and in 1907, Calvary Baptist Church, newly built, had several rooms and the west wall damaged by fire.

Then, what Coleman called a “spectacular” fire damaging several buildings happened on Jan. 11, 1921 between Mill and Broadway. With estimates totaling nearly $800,000, the Wolf Wile Co., J.D. Purcell Co., Kaufman-Straus Clothing Co. and the Peerless store all were damaged. Dick Webb’s Mammoth Garage, on East Main, was burned in August 1925, and Coleman reported it attracted a crowd to watch estimated at 3,000-4,000 people.

Moving far ahead to 1952, the R.J. Reynolds Co.’s storage tobacco warehouse No. 8 was damaged by fire thought to cost $750,000. Its location was near Angliana Avenue, off Versailles Pike. There were two fires on the University of Kentucky campus within the next decade. Frazee Hall, housing the history department, burned on Jan. 24, 1956.

Though damages were over $200,000 to fix, it was confined to the interior, repaired and put back into use. Neville Hall burned in 1961 and was a total loss.

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood day trips (and sometimes overnight ones) orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points being in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state now. After teaching 28 years, Steve spends much of his time today writing and reading about the state, and still enjoys doing those one dayers (and sometimes overnighters). “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes, and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

In what Coleman termed “one of Lexington’s most tragic fires,” the Kentucky Food Stores warehouse on Delaware Avenue proved a fatal fire in 1963. Four of the company’s executives were killed and costs were nearly a million dollars. Old Morrison, on the Transylvania campus, was severely damaged in 1969 by a fire but was restored.

One might begin to wonder about the variables of fire safety measures throughout those years mentioned, and how they differed from the present. I asked Keven Moore, a risk management specialist for Roeding Insurance and columnist for KyForward and NKyTribune, to make a comparison.

“You always learn from a fire,” he said. He spoke of National Fire Protection Association safety codes tightening as the 20th century emerged, but still, he said, “the response time and equipment inadequacy” were major obstacles in preventing huge fires that did great damage to property and threatened lives.

Things are much better in modern times. “We don’t have to have bucket brigades today,” Moore said, “and, in the city, we have well-trained firemen who don’t have to first drive 15 minutes to get to the fire station, and if they get to the fire quick enough, it can be contained.”

What Moore called “fire load,” or the combustible material in today’s buildings, has also been more carefully regulated for safety today, he said.

Bill Hicks would agree with Moore’s comments, and also believes that more stringent sprinkler system codes have helped cut down on the frequency of great fires of the past, along with minimum staffing requirements of fire departments. “I believe that we need, number one, to look at having more sprinklers in residential homes in the future,” he said.

Hicks is an associate professor for the Fire Protection and Safety Engineering Technology Program at Eastern Kentucky University, and teaching institutions such as it are a big reason why we have fewer news headlines dealing with major fires as chronicled above.

This article originally appeared on July 28, 1015

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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