Friday, September 24, 2010

The fire of 1874

The fire in August of 1874 consumed the buildings along both sides of Main St. from Algoma St. north to Irving St. and east to Broad St. Many of the structures designed by William Waters and erected after that blaze remain to this day.

An imposing edifice is the Wagner Opera House at the corner of Main and Merritt Streets. Wagner had maintained an establishment on that corner since the late 1860's. To the left is an image of the hall as it appeared in 1872. The fire destroyed the original structure and Wagner rebuilt using plans drawn by Waters. Not long after construction was finished Mr. Wagner decided to get out of the opera house business and sold the place the the First Methodist Episcopal Church.

The Methodists
must have liked the
hall for they remained there until the 1960's. After the Methodists moved the building had many different uses. There have been some alteration over the years; enlarged window on the south elevation, the tower and front pediment were removed and the building was re-roofed some time early in the twentieth century but still remains much as it was when constructed. One curious aspect is its color. Many years ago the brick on first and second stories and cleaned but the third floor was left a dark brown giving an odd appearance.

The Harding Opera house also went up in flames. It was a Waters designed and was erected in fits and starts. Located just north the the First National Bank, construction began in 1867 but was halted dew to lack of funds. Work resumed in 1870 and was completed by 1872. There were two stores flanking a central entrance to the auditorium on the second floor like that seen in Wagner's hall. There are no images of this structure that I know of. After the fire the Fraker Opera house was built on the same lot but was not of Waters' design.
Is is ironical that another building affected by the
conflagration was the Phoenix fire house. Built in 1871, it shared the same basic design as that of the Brooklyn fire house just across the river on Sixth St. The Phoenix however lay in the path of the blaze and was left a burnt out shell. Rising from the ashes like its name sake the fire house was rebuilt and served for many years. Eventually
the building ceased to server the fire department and was sold. By the 1940's the structure had been converted to retail space, sans the tower and observatory. In the photo montage above, with images from the collection of the Oshkosh Public Museum, is pictured the house shortly after construction with a brave fire fighter standing at the peak of the gable. Just below is seen the aftermath of the fire and to the right of that the rebuilt Phoenix with an observatory added atop the tower. There is also a picture of the wallpaper store it became. The building withstood the test of fire but not the test of time. It fell to the wrecker's ball in the 1970's to make way for a parking lot.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

After the fire

By the early 1870's Oshkosh was well on it's way to becoming an important city of manufacturing and commerce. It did suffer a few set backs, however. With a reliance on wood as a construction material and the fire fighting technology of the time the city was prone to destruction by fire. Five times; 1859, 1866, twice in 1874 and finally in 1875 major portion of the business district were consumed by flames and subsequently rebuilt. I will devote the next few entries to Waters' post conflagration works.

The fires of 1859 and 1866 destroyed
much of what was the business district
to varying degrees. The first fire in May of 1874 had no effect on the businesses along Main St. In August another conflagration consumed a large area from Main and Algoma / Washington Sts. north to Irving and as far east as Broad St. There is a dearth of information about reconstruction after these four fires. The blaze of 1875 and its aftermath was the subject of much newspaper print. Starting a few blocks west of Main St. near the river the flames, pushed by strong winds moved to the east and north destroying much of what lay in its path from Ceape St. to Washington St. and to the east well past the Court House.

Reconstruction started soon after, as the newspaper account will attest. Mr. Waters office was drawing "Plan by the yard" as draftsman J.P. Jensen put it. Waters had under his purview some 35 commercial structures that year. Perhaps one of the most interesting undertakings was the east side of Main St. from Ceape to Otter St. Misters Griffin, Ernst and Hubbard owned adjoining lots and were convinced to build identical buildings. In this row of stores the architect uses a form described in an earlier post, two stores with a stairways leading to the second floor between them. The row consists of four such buildings with single slightly larger store between the last two at the right, as seen in the first image. In the next block up Waters designed buildings for H. Bammessell and R. McKenzie, as well as others. The buildings were not adjacent as implied by the second image. All but one of the building on the east side the next block north were of Waters' design.

A structure of particular beauty was the Union Bank located on the northwest corner of Main and High Sts. It featured a cut corner entrance with an arched opening and recessed doors. Above the doors was arched window flanked by columns supporting a cornice upon which rested an arched pediment. Beyond the pediment was something like a plinth inscribed with the word bank. On the Main St. elevation pilasters either side of a large arched window supported small ledge. There were pilasters as well on the second floor bolstering a cornice. A set of double window filled the center of the wall. The fenestration along the the south elevation was regular with rows of four windows from foundation to the second floor. Pilasters at the west end the the building define another commercial space with a window and entrance gained by a small flight of steps. There were two window on the second floor.