As she checked on her slumbering dog before heading to bed Thursday night, Patty Garney spotted an unusual glow near a skylight inside her Northland home.
She studied it for a few seconds. Suddenly she realized the danger it posed for her sleeping husband, their house guest and her.
“I’ve never been around a fire before, but I determined it was fire because it started moving,” the longtime civic leader recalled Friday morning while standing outside the charred remains of one of the city’s most visited and admired mansions, an elegant red-brick home built to look like an English country manor and perched on a cliff with a spectacular view of downtown.
“I could see the glow jumping. And then I started hearing some popping.”
As the fire intensified in the attic area, where it apparently started, Garney ran to the bedroom and woke her husband, Charles Garney, who had developed the Briarcliff West subdivision where they lived. She called 911. She alerted their guest. Within two minutes, the smoke alarms and fire alarms sounded. Then the alarm company called.
Charles Garney and the house guest backed the cars out of the garage and put the dog in a car.
Patty Garney grabbed her cellphone and purse and left the house as ceiling chunks began falling onto the carpet and sofa while smoke filled the great room — at 30 feet tall, a spacious place that had played host to thousands of people for countless events since 1995.
Hours later, the home’s walls remained, but most of the slate roof had disappeared into an abyss of blackened debris.
Fire officials estimated the damage at about $8 million. The house had been worth about $4.2 million, and contents normally are estimated to double the value, said Kansas City Fire Department Battalion Chief James Garrett.
The department’s investigation is continuing, he said. But fire officials said they had found no reason to consider a suspicious cause.
A well-known developer, Charles Garney has played a huge role in the development of Kansas City north of the river. His Briarcliff development was a major catalyst to the housing boom occurring today in the Northland.
He bought the first 600 acres of what became Briarcliff in 1965. At the time, the area consisted of rock quarries, a concrete plant and a dozen run-down houses. The project didn’t take off until 1989, when an interchange was built off U.S. 169, along with Briarcliff Parkway. Since then, Briarcliff has become one of the more upscale residential subdivisions in the Northland.
Over the years, with the help of tax incentives from the city, Garney has added the Briarcliff Village retail development, several office buildings and a hotel. In 2013, Briarcliff Development began construction on a 340-unit apartment development south of Missouri 9 called Briarcliff Riverfront Apartments.
In the 1990s, the Garneys selected a prime 1.39-acre lot at 4200 N. Hickory Lane as the place to build a three-story home that they also wanted to serve as a community center of sorts. And it did. Social organizations frequently asked permission to hold events there. There were weddings, a funeral and a visitation.
And the Garneys entertained, both causally and formally, as the home was designed to make both types of events feel comfortable.
In the first eight years alone, an estimated 33,000 guests strolled through, including 800 for the premiere party for Robert Altman’s film “Kansas City.”
Watching the flames eat away at the building was “pretty tough, for sure,” Patty Garney said.
“In 20 years, you build up a lot of memories, especially when you share a house and have the community in,” she said.
The Garneys had attended the Big 12 basketball tournament Thursday. Charles Garney left for home after the University of Kansas game. Patty Garney and their house guest stayed at the Sprint Center much later and got home about 10:30 p.m.
They didn’t smell any smoke, she said.
The guest went upstairs to bed. Patty Garney locked up, checked for phone messages and walked to the back bedroom to get ready for bed.
“I came back out to the dog’s bed just to tell him goodnight and to see if he wanted to wake up and go outside — he didn’t,” she said. “That’s when I saw this glow.”
Firefighters received the call at 10:52 p.m. and started responding a minute later, said Kansas City Fire Chief Paul Berardi. The first fire company arrived within six minutes.
“We fought the fire inside for about 23 minutes, and then we evacuated and went defensive,” Berardi said.
Because of the size of the fire, additional firefighters were called on a second and then a third alarm.
“What we are suspecting is that the fire had been involved in the attic for quite some time before we actually arrived,” Berardi said. “The slate roof contained that heat. And while it might have let out that smoke, people didn’t see it in the evening. So it got a pretty good headway on us.”
Firefighters fought the blaze through the night as strong winds threatened to jump the flames toward neighbors’ homes.
The fire ran from one end of the house to the other, which made it difficult to stop, Berardi said.
“We don’t see anything to indicate otherwise than an accidental fire,” he said. “But again it is under investigation and they will look at all of those things, but at this time we don’t see any indication of anything other than accidental.”
Patty Garney praised the firefighters, saying they worked to save some of their valuables, including taking pictures off walls and moving them to the garage, which was dry and safe. But the Garneys lost some baby pictures, photos of their children and other items, tucked away in drawers, that could not be grabbed in time.
Garney said they haven’t been able to think about what is next, including whether they will rebuild.
“You know, it’s way too early,” she said. “Several people have asked. I think the community would probably like us to. We’ve got a whole lot of questions to answer before we make that decision.”
Throughout the day Friday, people called the Garneys offering food, clothes and places to stay.
“Life goes on, and we are all OK,” Patty Garney said. “We are thankful for that.”