The Big Fire.

From Racquet Club: A Youthful Hundred: “The Big Fire, or: Who’s That in the Negligee?”

The busy, hot St. Louis summer of 1957 reached its peak in early August. The Racquet Club slowed down with the rest of the city, as members vacationed in cooler climes, and the squash players, who typically liked cold courts to keep the ball from getting too lively, suffered with summer’s usual stifling conditions. Saturday, August 3, had been a typical, lazy, midsummer weekend day of no particular note. That evening, out at Sportsman’s Park, the Cardinals, led as always by Stan Musial, had vanquished the Phillies 3-1. Around 3:30 a.m., Larry Callan, a cabbie driving by the Club on North Kingshighway, noticed flames coming from the windows of the second floor above the Card Room, in the area of one of the squash courts. He immediately pulled over to the corner of North Kingshighway and Westminster and pulled the alarm on box 1725.

Three other alarms were called in by fire personnel as they arrived over the next thirty minutes.

At 3:30 a.m., the Club had, of course, long been closed for the evening, its only inhabitants being a few boarders and one or two employees asleep upstairs. One of these folks became aware of flames tearing through the second-floor squash area, roused the others, and led a contingent of a half-dozen sleep-addled Racquet Clubbers, in various states of nighttime dishabille, from the upper floors, down three flights, through the Library and foyer, and to the sidewalk outside. By the time they had assembled in the front of the building, sirens were filling the warm night air, and hook-and-ladders were pulling up to the curb.

Suddenly one member — it is unknown who — roused the cobwebs sufficiently enough to gain his bearings and with them, his sense of decorum.

Looking at the flames jumping out of the second-floor windows, it was obvious the fire would prove to be costly and damaging. On the other hand, it was a big building, the fire was at the moment isolated in one area, and the fire trucks were already on-site. The danger would obviously be fully contained in short order. Given all this, he stepped in front of the helmeted firemen in their heavy gear, axes in hand, jumping off the trucks and preparing to storm in though the front door. The service entrance, he informed them, was down the alley, and the Club would appreciate it they would kindly redirect their efforts by using that door.

The somewhat surprised firefighters stopped dead in their tracks, looked at one another, shrugged, and ran down the alley for the service entrance.

In a few hours the fire was out, although, unfortunately, two firemen were hospitalized. Almost certainly the bar had been temporarily relocated to the sidewalk out front. (It is hard to imagine the members fighting fire without firewater.) But most importantly, decorum had been maintained, protocol followed, even in the midst of the conflagration. The front door had remained a members-only passage throughout the crisis.

Lest some feel this too rigid an adherence to regulations, it must be remembered that the rules were in fact relaxed: the firemen were not required to wear ties as they went about their duties, even though the dress code required it of everyone in the public areas of the Club.

The cause of the blaze, which appeared to originate in a storeroom, was never identified. In terms of damage, the squash court was fully charred and burned, the Card Room was gutted and damaged by water, and the Oak Bar incurred smoke damage. Final costs for replastering the walls and ceiling downstairs, repanelling the walls, sanding and refinishing the floors, and tending to wiring and ductwork issues exceeded $20,000. Fortunately the painting of Judge Taylor at the east end of the room and the mural over the fireplace were undamaged. No efforts were made to repair the squash court, however, and it would remain a sealed-off ruin for more than twenty years.

There was, as it turned out, fallout beyond the physical damage. Apparently, one of those so rudely rousted by the flames from the fourth floor, and left standing on the sidewalk at 4:00 a.m., turned out to be a woman — and not an employee. No acceptable explanation for her presence was ever offered. Women, of course, were not allowed on the premises, day or night. In addition, business was frowned upon, so even were she a consultant of some variety, as is likely, she would still have been outside the protocols established for Club activities. There is no record of a sanction of any individual who may have been serving as her host for the evening. Larry Callan received 125 from the Board for his Club-saving effort, and the Fire Chief received a letter “to show our gratitude for the efficient way his fireman put out the fire.”

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