A Fate of Flames

30, March 2017
Black-and-white daguerreotype in case showing Lindell Hotel ruinsA crowd gathered in front of the Lindell Hotel ruins, 1867. Daguerreotype by Thomas M. Easterly. Missouri History Museum.

St. Louis was once home to one of the largest hotels in all the world—until the unthinkable happened.

On March 30, 1867, the Lindell Hotel caught fire for reasons unknown. The ornate six-story building was a marvel of architectural design carefully crafted from brick, iron, and stone. As word of the fire began to spread, many of the nearly 400 guests ignored the warnings. Much like some passengers of the Titanic believed the ship unsinkable, these hotel residents thought themselves safe within the strong, solid confines surrounding them. They continued relaxing, eating, and drinking, but the fire wasn’t about to be ignored.

Shortly after being discovered on the fifth floor, the flames spread upward. They then made their way to the elevator shaft, which provided a straight path to the lower floors. Two hours later, a “pillar of fire” lit the sky, visible for 27 miles from the hotel’s location along Washington Avenue between Sixth and Seventh streets.

Within four hours, the walls had fallen in. The equivalent of more than $435,000 worth of furniture, clothing, and more belonging to the Lindell’s wealthy residents had been lost. That alone was enough to cause an outcry, at least among those affected. But the loss of the building itself stirred a deeper pain in the city, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch notes:

A magnificent triumph of architectural skill has suddenly been reduced to a shapeless ruin. A building which was the pride of our citizens, which was everywhere known as one of the largest hotels in the world, has ceased to exist, and no longer affords home to travelers from every country. Everything within and about the building is totally destroyed, except a small portion of bricks and stones, and a small portion of the furniture and stores which were removed.

Some of the hotel’s limestone blocks live on in Tower Grove Park thanks to Henry Shaw, who saw the value in repurposing them. They now serve in a purely decorative fashion as “ancient” ruins.

Black-and-white daguerreotype in case showing Lindell Hotel ruinsLindell Hotel ruins, 1867. Daguerreotype by Thomas M. Easterly. Missouri History Museum.

One might think St. Louisans would have taken the tragedy as a sign to leave well enough alone, but almost immediately after the fire, people were advocating for the Lindell to be rebuilt, perhaps because “every citizen feels the loss as a public calamity.” The question was simply whether to build on the same site or one farther away. Eventually the idea of rebuilding on the original site won out.

Black-and-white photo of second Lindell HotelThe second Lindell Hotel, 1895. Photo by Emil Boehl. Missouri History Museum.

The second Lindell Hotel opened in 1874 and was no less lavish than its predecessor. The exterior was once again designed in the Italian style. The interior rooms boasted steam heat and lace curtains, and guests could choose from either cold-water baths or Turkish baths. Life at the Lindell was good—for about 10 years.

On April 28, 1885, fire struck once again. This time the flames began in a basement storeroom, where great piles of garbage provided ample fuel. The fire spread quickly up the grand staircase. Unlike last time, guests panicked. The numerous women and children occupying the hotel’s 270 rooms were eager to escape to safety. Other residents didn’t quite know what to do, as this Post-Dispatch anecdote describes:

One half-crazy guest stood at a fourth-story window on the Sixth street side, and held a large trunk halfway over the sill for five minutes, waiting for a chance to drop it to the sidewalk at a time when it would kill the smallest number of people. The yelling of the crowds finally induced him to haul it back inside.

Another difference was the lack of visible flame: The only outward sign that something was wrong was the thick black smoke pouring from the building’s basement. Yet still some 40,000 to 50,000 people came to watch the spectacle. Several male onlookers even attempted to rush into the building in search of their family members, including a Mr. Paul Fusz, whom the Post-Dispatch notes “made his way up the stairs in spite of the protests of the firemen.”

Black-and-white photo of Washington Ave east of Sixth StWashington Avenue, just east of Sixth Street, former home of both Lindell Hotels, 1906. Missouri History Museum.

Ultimately the fire was put out within an hour. The walls of the second Lindell Hotel remained intact, but “the floor had all fallen into the basement. . . . The parlor floor was drenched with water and the rich carpets looked like dirty rags.”

By 1906 the Lindell’s prime Washington Avenue location had a new, non-hotel occupant: the Stix, Baer & Fuller department store.

—Jen Tebbe, Editor

Membership appeal