Friday, February 03, 2012

West Virginia, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Idaho....

On January 3, 1921, the State Capitol in Charleston was destroyed by a fire of unknown origin and inexplicably rapid advancement.
"In 1870, Dr. John P. Hale, was given the contract for construction of Charleston's first capitol building and ended up paying most of the cost himself. That capitol was built in the Italianate style, with Romanesque details. The second capitol building in Charleston, and the topic of this discussion, was erected incorporating the 1870 capitol into the new structure. The 85 rooms of the new building housed all the departments of state government and were completely occupied in 1887. The so-called Victorian capitol was built in the Second Empire style, with a mansard roof, gabled wall dormers, and towers. In 1903, an annex was built across the street. This would become the library. The annex was torn down in 1967."

"Ammunition, bought by the West Virginia State Police two years before, was stored on the top floor of the building. The ammunition had been purchased for use in the coal field disputes which had threatened to erupt into civil war. Supposedly several machine guns and rifles were also stored in the Capitol. The heat from the fire set off the ammunition and sent onlookers running in every direction. Smoke could be seen for miles. While firefighters were fighting the fire, two men mounted one of the fire trucks and took off for a joyride around Charleston. Police chased the men and arrested them."

January 4, 1921, New York Times, Fire Ruins Capitol of West Virginia, Only the Shell Is Left of Handsome Brick Building at Charleston, Falling Roof Kills Two, Loss of Several Millions Covered by Insurance---Origin of Flames Unknown.
Special to The New York Times.
CHARLESTON, W.Va., Jan. 3.----The Capitol of West Virginia, together with priceless records of some of the departments of the State Government, was destroyed late this afternoon by a fire of mysterious origin. Only the brick shell remains of the once stately building. 
The loss amount to several millions of dollars, which is covered by a blanket insurance policy of $6,000,000 on all the State buildings. 
The fire started in the small record room over the office of the Secretary of the Public Service Commission. 
Two men were killed at 5 o'clock when a section of the roof fell in. The dead are: Edward Spencer, an electrician, and Howard Pauley, fireman. 
Fire Chief W. W. Graham, Policeman William Lacey and Fireman Oscar Thaxton were injured. Chief of Police John Charnock had a narrow escape. The chief and some of his men were in the Tax Commissioner's office pitching records out of the windows. As they started down a ladder there was a roar and a cloud of smoke as part of the roof fell. 
The firemen said that another man was with them and that he was buried beneath the debris. His name could not definitely be learned. There were reports that he was Charles Walker of Huntington. 
The fire started about 2:30 o'clock on the fourth floor of the Capitol, which is seldom used, except for the storing of records and stationery. The office of the Public Service Commission gave the alarm. By the time the Fire Department was able to pour water on the building it was doomed. 
E. E. Winters, Chief Railroad Inspector of the commission, narrowly escaped being buried alive. He played a stream of water on the blaze from a small hose and remained at his post until his face was scorched. Winters gained freedom by descending a back stairway which was burning. 
One of the losses was in the burning of the Museum of the State Department of Agriculture, which, it is said, cannot be equaled in any agricultural department of the country. The old clock in the tower, whose weights were of many tons, is a complete loss. 
In a statement tonight, Governor Cornwell said: 
"Of course, this fire is little short of a calamity to the State because of the records that have been destroyed in the various departments, which will occasion inconvenience to many persons. It cannot be ascertained just yet how much of the records of several of the departments was saved or what will be the state of those in the various vaults. 
"The monetary loss will not be great. We have insurance on all the State buildings, in a blanket policy, for all the insurance companies will carry. The total insurance carried is approximately $6,000,000. So it will be seen that the State can collect all it is entitled to for this building, based, of course, upon its valuation. 
"I will call a meeting of the State officers tomorrow morning to make arrangements of the legislative session. My thought now is that the Senate can be housed in the Young Men's Christian Association building and auditorium and the House of Delegates in the armory. Those buildings are close together and will do very well in an emergency such as this. 
"The biggest trouble will be to find room for the various departments, some of which have a great many clerks and stenographers. The Chamber of Commerce has offered its services in the matter. There are no vacant buildings or offices in Charleston, but offers are already coming to me from private citizens, from churches and elsewhere, and I am quite sure that all of the departments will be functioning again in a few days." 
William Briggs, a prisoner in the West Virginia Penitentiary at Moundsville, three weeks ago predicted that the State Capitol would be destroyed either by fire or a bomb explosion, according to a prominent Charleston attorney who refused to be quoted. Briggs did not predict the date. 
Officials are working to determine the origin of the fire.
Compare the Times' early reporting with the following settled facts:
"On January 3rd, the West Virginia State Capitol caught fire and burned for several hours in Charleston. Charlie Walker died in the blaze and four others were seriously injured. Among those seriously injured was Charleston firefighter, Oscar Thaxton, and in March of 1922 succumbed to his injuries."   Source: Charleston Fire Department History Page
Whatever mysterious Charlie may have been, he wasn't a fireman. And while Thaxton lingered, apparently, Spencer and Pauley somehow sprang back to life. It's hard to reconcile the fire department's excuses with the visual evidence as seen in the photographs. Just put the goddamn fire out!

How does one person in a corridor on the second floor of a busy state government office building, see smoke issuing from an upstairs attic on a busy Tuesday afternoon without anybody else becoming aware of it independently, if not simultaneously? We need a new kind of Aesop's fable for this---similar to the boy who cried wolf, but flipped reversed---like The Girl Who Saw Smoke, But, Darn It! I Could Have Been a Hero!. 

"By the time the Fire Department was able to pour water on the building it was doomed," sounds very, very familiar in the New York Times.

The West Virginia Legislative Web Site describes a much different process in rebuilding their state capitol than what New York's insanely grandiose and criminally corrupt Capitol builders underwent, even if those Hillbillies have to gloss over that little fire business. Ammunition for the State Police stored in the attic with all the people's priceless documents? DuPont has always been good for one thing---bombs! And not quiet ones either! 

Table of Contents
›The Early Capitol Locations
› Planning the Capitol Complex
› West Virginia Executive Mansion
› Building the Capitol:
Part 1 Part 2 | Part 3
› The Architect's Description
› Biographical Sketch of the Architect
› Capitol Building Commission Members
› The West Virginia Capitol: Project of Five Governors
› Mythological Figures in the Carved Heads
› Summary of Facts Concerning the Capitol
› Glossary of Architectural Terms Used
› Bibliography and Photographic Credits

Unfortunately for the Governor though, the insurance only paid out $500,000, and not the $6,000,000.

A tidbit: "A temporary wood-frame building, located on the future site of the Daniel Boone Hotel, was erected in just 42 days and became known as the ‘‘pasteboard capitol.’’ This 166-room building experienced the same fate as its predecessor when on March 2, 1927, it was completely destroyed by fire. During this time however, groundbreaking for the building we all know today had already been completed on the west wing in January 1924,and this first phase was completed in March 1925; the east wing was built between July 1926 and December 1927, so the new state capitol was already well under way."

View of the two completed wings - March 1930

There are two kinds of architects and interior designers in this world: The inferior beings who have to parley kickback schemes to advance their professional careers, and those with enough innate talent to stay above the fray by keeping their hands clean. Cass Gilbert was a very wise choice for the West Virginians, who we can absolve for the relatively minor insurance fraud.

View of complex from north - March 1931

However, the 1903 Annex across the street from the Charleston Capitol---where the state library, the public archives, and all the museum collections other than their mighty agricultural holdings rode out the interlude of disaster safely---wasn't "torn down in the 1960's." It was another case of a fire-proof building, which was also destroyed later by flames:
"Moving into the annex after the state archives were vacated were the offices of the State Bureau of Labor, the State Board of Children's Guardians, and the Adjutant General. When the capitol's main unit was completed the annex was completely given over to the city of Charleston for its public library, and this building served Charleston's citizens until the mid 1960s, as it was also destroyed by fire. The National Bank of Commerce now stands on the site of the venerable annex building, a facility that preserved many of the records the state possesses that document our early history."
With joy-riders stealing fire-trucks in mid-response; a state-prisoner talking like a cherry-Kool-Aid-lipped Cassandra to his I-must-remain-prominent lawyer; and a private physician ending up paying  for vast public works out of his personal pocket, it sounds like reality nearly came unstiched back in 1921. Or 1911? Or was it 1912? Or 2001. Not to worry: It won't be such a close call the next time around.

1 comment:

  1. It's sad that records and historic artifacts were lost, but the building itself was just plain ugly. No big loss there, unless you're into preserve monuments to ugly architecture.