DATE OF EVENT: Wednesday, April 4, 1900
DATE PUBLISHED: Wednesday, April 4, 1900, in The Kansas City Star
Editor’s note: The fire that destroyed Kansas City’s celebrated Convention Hall could not have come at a worse time. The city was to be the host for the Democratic National Convention less than three months later, and now had no place for the delegates to meet.
Kansas City rose to the occasion. Citizens began to raise subscriptions for a new hall immediately, and in less than two days more than $36,000 had been collected — roughly $750,000 in today’s money. Calls were placed to contractors and steel plants. Work began almost immediately.
And three months later, the delegates nominated William Jennings Bryan for president in a completed Convention Hall. It wasn’t perfect; in fact, an Associated Press story would describe it as “crude.” A few windows lacked glass and so were covered by an American flag.
But the Kansas City Spirit had emerged from the crisis, and the building would stand until the 1930s.
Convention hall, the pride of Kansas City, the magnificent auditorium that has spread the city’s fame, is a mass of charred and smoldering ruins.
It caught fire at 1 o’clock this afternoon and burned with such fury that in fifteen minutes it was almost totally destroyed. When the fire department arrived the magnificent structure was a roaring furnace, filled with destroying flames, beyond the power of man to subdue.
A stiff wind was blowing from the south east and the Lathrop school and the Second Presbyterian church … quickly caught fire and were destroyed. The burning brands were carried by the wind, setting several residences on fire and the firemen buckled down to fight a hard battle against strong odds. People turned away sorrowfully from the spectacle of the doomed temple and the question was oft repeated: “Can it be rebuilt in time for the national Democratic convention?”
While the flames were still at work a subscription was started to rebuild the hall.
Flames and smoke were seen issuing from the northeastern corner of the building at 1 o’clock and half a dozen people ran to turn in an alarm. The fire department responded quickly, but before it could arrive the whole building was a seething furnace.
The building was doomed and the firemen made desperate efforts to save the Lathrop school, Presbyterian church and adjoining residences. The water pressure was lamentably weak and the efforts of the firemen to stay the flames were in vain. …
The news that Convention hall was afire had flashed over the city like a lightning flash and from all parts of town came thousands of people. The police found it necessary early to put up ropes to keep the people back. Every street leading to the hall was filled with a moving crowd of people, men women and children. All were as flushed and excited as if their own homes were afire.
To show that the people believed the hall belonged to them the remarks of several people to U.S. Epperson (a member of the Convention hall board) can be quoted. As soon as he appeared on the scene he was besieged by them. “Have we any insurance?” several asked. …
The floors, balconies and all the interior works of Convention hall were constructed of soft pine wood and were most inflammable. The arrangement of the hall made it like a vast furnace in which the woodwork was consumed rapidly.
The cause of the fire is unknown. It started near the engine room in the northeast corner of the building, but there has been no fire in the furnace since Monday night when the Democratic rally was held. … It is not known whether the fire was due to the carelessness of … workmen.
What Is Kansas City To Do About Rebuilding Its Great Convention Hall?
WHAT BUILDERS SAY
They Do Not Believe It Could Be Rebuilt in Time for Convention
TROUBLE ABOUT STEEL
That Would Be an Insurmountable Obstacle, They Declare
Loyal Kansas Citians Give Generously Toward Restoration — Insurance of $155,000
“Can Convention hall be rebuilt in time for the Democratic national convention on July 4?” This question was on the lips of thousands of people as they gazed this afternoon on the roaring furnace of flames. Architects and builders who were consulted were generally of the opinion that it would be absolutely an impossibility to restore the great gathering place in that short time, a period of less than three months. The chief obstacle, they said, was the securing of the steel spans that that stretch across the hall and support the roof. These, they said, would be twisted out of all shape by the intense heat they had gone through and would be beyond use. …
The question of a temporary structure of some kind for the National Democratic convention was discussed. Mr. Rosenthal, a theatrical man of wide experience, said he could provide a circus tent in four days that would hold 20,000 people. …
J.J. Swofford, chairman of the Democratic national committee, said this afternoon:
“I believe we should go to work rebuilding the hall at once and have it completed and ready for the convention July 4. It can be done and we will do it. There is $160,000 insurance on the building. I was talking with several of the insurance men this afternoon who carry this insurance and they told me the money was ready to be paid to-morrow if we wished it. I have been trying this afternoon to get Mr. Evans, president of the Convention hall, to get him to call a meeting of the directors. … The news will be flashed all over the country to-day that our great hall is burned and the newspapers in Chicago, which have been making faces at Kansas City because she got the convention, will laugh at us. But I am sure the national committee will not take advantage of our misfortune. If we promise them we will have the hall ready they will not take the convention away from us.”…