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Downtown St. Paul on Fire

Between 1950 and 1966, five multi-alarm fires roared through downtown St. Paul’s stock of historic residential hotels, leaving behind a legacy of death and ruin. It’s likely these fires, which highlighted the dangers of crowded old structures lacking up-to-date safety features, helped spur urban renewal efforts that ultimately transformed downtown’s central core.

The fires struck at a time when downtown St. Paul, unlike it urban-renewal-loving counterpart across the river, remained a museum of Victorian and early twentieth-century architecture. Dozens of old brick and stone buildings, most no higher than six stories, lined the  narrow streets, not just in the Lowertown warehouse district but extending throughout much of the commercial core between Jackson and St. Peter streets. Aging hotel and apartment buildings that catered primarily to low-income tenants were especially abundant, and many had one thing in common: they were potential fire traps waiting for a spark.

The first big fire of the post-war era struck on August 13, 1950, at the Jewell (originally Clifton) Hotel on Fifth St. between Wabasha and Cedar streets, where the Osborn 370 Building is today. It was a six-alarm blaze that drew virtually every piece of fire equipment in St. Paul as well as units from Minneapolis.

Jewell Hotel on fire, 1950 (Minnesota Historical Society)

Huge crowds gathered to watch the fire, which quickly consumed the five-story brick residential hotel built in 1885. All 70 or so of the Jewell’s occupants managed to escape without serious injury, although four had to be plucked from windows via aerial ladders. One notable casualty was the presciently named Flame Bar, which occupied the ground floor of the hotel and was declared a total loss.

Next to burn, in December 1955, was what was then known as the Willard Apartments at 10th and St. Peter streets. Built in 1889 as the Palazzo Hotel, the building had been elegant in its day but by the mid 1950s was well past its prime. The fire started on the top floor, probably ignited by a worker’s carelessly discarded cigarette. Residents got out safely but a 53-year-old hotel maid named Augusta Heasley died in a stuck elevator as she tried to reach the sixth floor to sound the alarm.

Palazzo Apartments (later Willard Hotel), ca. 1890 (MHS) 1955 fire at Willard Hotel (now Colonnade Apts.) (MHS)

Unlike the Jewell, the Willard (now known as the Colonnade Apartments) survived the fire, but only after its two upper floors were amputated, a surgery that did not improve its appearance.

Another dramatic fire occurred on July 28, 1959, at the Minor Hotel at the southeast corner of Fourth and Robert streets (where the U. S. Courthouse now stands). Originally known as the Frontier Building, the four-story residential hotel dated to 1880.

Frontier Building (later Minor Hotel), c. 1929 (Minnesota Historical Society)

The fire broke out in early morning darkness, spewing thick clouds of smoke that rapidly filled the hotel. Its 27 residents, mostly older women, had little time to flee. Some made it down fire escapes or were rescued by fire fighters from high windows.  

But the smoke took its toll. One woman was found dead in her fourth-floor apartment and three others later died from the effects of smoke inhalation. The hotel itself sustained heavy damage and was soon demolished.

Another St. Paul landmark, the Frederic Hotel, burned down just 18 months later, on Jan. 20, 1961, the day John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as president.

Fire destroyed the Frederic Hotel in 1961 (St. Paul Pioneer Press)

The 102-room, four-story hotel, built in 1903 at the northeast corner of Fifth and Cedar streets, had originally been owned by Fred and Electa Snyder. He ran the hotel while she pursued her own career as an opera singer and part-time impresario. The couple also owned a summer home (long gone) at Snelling and Larpenteur avenues designed by none other than Emmanuel Masqueray, architect of St. Paul Cathedral.

Fred, it turned out, had a wandering eye and found the hotel a convenient place for his indiscretions. Electa discovered his activities and the couple divorced in 1923 amid the sensational airing of much unpleasant domestic laundry.

New owners eventually took over the hotel, which was a fading establishment by the time of the 1961 fire. The eight-alarm blaze started in the basement and rapidly engulfed the entire structure. Once again, St. Paul fire fighters climbed their ladders to rescue trapped occupants. One guest was unaccounted for, however, and his body wasn’t found until a week later as the hotel was being demolished.

The last of the downtown St. Paul fires, at the nondescript Carleton Hotel in January  1966, proved to be the deadliest. Located at the southwest corner of St. Peter and Exchange streets, the four-story Carleton had been built in about 1905 and was described in newspaper accounts as a “workingman’s hotel.”

Eleven people died in the Carlton Hotel fire in 1966 (Minneapolis Star)

The fire ignited around 4 a.m. when a hotel resident, who would be among the dead, apparently fell asleep with a lighted cigarette in a second-floor bathroom. Smoke and flames raced through the building, catching sleeping residents unawares, and many had to run for their lives.

One firefighter told the Minneapolis Tribune that when the first fire crews arrived, they found “three women screaming down the hall … their clothes flaming like torches. We doused them with water.”

The building was a smoldering shell in less than two hours. Nine bodies were found in the rubble and 17 other residents (two of whom later died from their injuries) were taken to hospitals. It was among the most lethal fires in St. Paul history and fueled calls for better inspections of the city’s many old hotels and apartments.

St. Paul’s great fire outbreak is unlikely to repeat itself, not only because of modern safety systems but also because very few old residential buildings of the kind that burned between 1950 and 1966 remain in the downtown core.

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