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History's Headlines: Lafayette Hotel fire was Allentown's Jazz Age tragedy

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Aug 04 2011 06:39:20 AM CDT
Updated On: Sep 20 2012 11:00:00 PM CDT

In 1926, the subject of a new hotel was much on the minds of Allentown's civic boosters.

In 1926, the subject of a new hotel was much on the minds of Allentown's civic boosters. In 1921 the Hotel Bethlehem had opened and in 1924 the Hotel Easton. It was not right, Allentown's city fathers said, that the region's largest city still lacked a modern fireproof building like its rivals. Unfortunately it took a tragic fire for the city to finally get one.

When critics pointed to Allentown's inadequate lodgings, the Lafayette Hotel at 133-137 N. 7th Street was the kind of place they had in mind. The oldest hotel in the city, its roots went back to 1809 when it opened as the Black Horse Tavern. Its heyday was in the Victorian era as a simple place, popular with farmers and traveling salesmen.

In a burst of entrepreneurial enthusiasm for the Lafayette's 100th anniversary in 1909, the hotel's owners, brothers Elmer and George Guth, added two stories to the three story building. Although their names were still on the Lafayette's side in 1926, they had sold it in 1924 to businessman Louis Genovese and W.D. Cassone. Whatever plans the pair may have had for it, they were never able to carry them out.

The early morning hours of January 23, 1926 were frigidly cold ones in the Lehigh Valley. Long before, most of the 45 guests at the Lafayette Hotel had gone to bed. But in the building's fourth floor annex at least one of them was still awake, smoking a cigarette. For reasons known only to the smoker, he or she decided to throw the still smoldering butt down a wooden clothing chute.

City fire department investigators believed this was the spark of the horror that soon followed. Encouraged by the drafty chute, the cigarette butt burst into flame. Eating their way through the wooden walls, the flames moved quickly to the narrow space between the annex and the main building. With frigid winds blowing on them, they turned the slit between the two walls into a flue, lit, the official fire report said, "as from the end of a burning torch."

It was 2:20 am when the Lafayette's night desk clerk, Ralph Lehman, was startled out of his conversation with Morning Call linotype operator Melanchthon Usaw by cries of "Fire!" from upstairs.

Almost before both men knew what was happening, smoke began pouring down the lobby's ancient wooden staircase. They charged up the stairs only to be forced back by an inferno. Lehman was able to get the elevator to take him as far as the second floor and managed to get the guests who were staying there out of the building. But it was impossible for him to go any higher.

Out in the street late nighters were horrified as they saw people on the 4th and 5th floors of the Lafayette jumping or attempting to jump from the building. The fire department's hook and ladder men arrived to find guests hanging outside by their fingertips from the window ledge of the Lafayette. "Get us out for God's sake, we are burning up," they cried.

Traveling salesmen E.R. Learner woke in his fourth floor room to the smell of smoke. He ran up and down the hall banging on doors. One man did awake but could not get the door open and Learner was forced back by the heat and flames. From somewhere Learner could hear a woman screaming but could not get to her.

Wearing only his underwear and an overcoat, Learner stepped out on to the roof ledge. With his hand he broke a window in the building next door and was helped by its occupants to safety.

Not everyone was so lucky. Guests were now jumping from their windows and falling to their deaths with what the Morning Call recorded as "a sickening thud." One firefighter was carrying a man to apparent safety when he slipped on an icy ladder and fell with this burden to the ground.

The hotel guest, elderly, frail and already weakened from smoke inhalation, died. Sitting on the ground in tears was the firefighter. "I should have held him," he kept repeating over and over again.

Nineteen year old Henry Geiger, just starting out as a traveling salesman, was trapped on the Lafayette's top floor. After banging on the elevator button and getting no response, he hung out the fifth floor window. By the time the firefighters got to him he was burned over much of his body. "Where is my mother? Tell my mother about me," he screamed repeatedly.

It was 5am before the Lafayette Hotel fire was finally out. Gutted like a building that had been bombed, the remains were grotesque and presented a challenge. It was decided the next day to try what a later generation would call an "implosion." C.V. Weaver, demolition expert with the DuPont Powder Company, was brought in to handle the job. As crowds watched at a safe distance, he pushed the plunger.

For a moment the Lafayette's walls shuttered, staggered and then fell to the ground in a heap of rubble. The 117-year history of the Lafayette Hotel was over. But for many people, the fire would never be over.

Thirteen guests had died. Some were so badly burned that relatives had to use dental records to identify them. Thirty-nine were injured, some of them with wounds so severe they never really recovered.

There was also another legacy from the tragedy of the Lafayette Hotel fire. Allentown tightened its fire code. When the Americus, Allentown's first modern hotel opened the following year, its owners could not repeat often enough that their building was fireproof.