The night Century Hall burned
These days, sadly, Century Hall, when it is remembered at all, it is usually remembered for the fire that reduced it to ashes. But Century Hall has come up in conversation twice recently, once for the fire, and once not.
First, a friend reminded me of a funny little exchange that took place the night we went to see Fishbone rock the house at Century Hall, the bowling alley and tavern built in 1890 that later became one of the best rock and roll clubs in Milwaukee.
The venue, at 2340 N. Farwell Ave. (designed by Buemming & Dick), hosted all kinds of shows, from reggae gigs with Freddie McGregor and locals like Kojo, to rock and roll shows by Johnny Thunders, Dead Milkmen, The Cramps and Husker Du, and local stalwarts like The R&B Cadets and Th(os)e XCleavers.
I chuckled that Fishbone frontman was taking, ahem, matters into his own hands that night and was lucky that Milwaukee Police didn't get a peek. It wasn't long before that gig that The Plasmatics' Wendy O. Williams ran afoul of the law here for showing a bit too much on stage. Or long after that G.G. Allin met a similar fate.
Then, in a recent chat with retired Milwaukee Fire Department deputy chief Warren "Ski" Skonieczny, and retired MFD lieutenant Randy Leach, talk turned to the Century Hall blaze, which quite literally rocked the East Side on the night of April 24, 1988.
"Sunday night, the thing lets loose," Ski remembered of the blast that shook the block at about 11 p.m. "It sets off the Richter Scale at UWM at 5.2, and then the fire communicated from the south building of origin, and communicated up the whole block and headed at Century Hall in the street. There were about five or six big houses on fire, maybe 30 cars and then all that stuff that wasn't on fire, we had to protect."
One hundred and sixty five firefighters spent five hours working with 30 pieces of equipment to get the five-alarm blaze under control. Investigators ruled the fire arson and that the explosion was touched off by a two-inch natural gas pipe that was disconnected in the basement of the building that housed the paint shop.
Twenty-eight people were homeless after the fire, which started in what Ski referred to above as the south building of origin: Larson's Paint and Wallpaper at 2324 N. Farwell Ave.
Perhaps most miraculous was that no one died in the fire and only one person was seriously injured.
The Milwaukee Sentinel reported the following day that, "the intensity of the blaze convinced rescuers early Monday that there would be casualties."
There were eight apartments on the two floors above Larson's, plus apartments in neighboring buildings, too.
"When I got there, the dispatchers said, 'give us an idea of how many body bags you would need.' We were expecting a lot of casualties with that force of explosion," Ski recalled.
"There was a guy that was sitting on the toilet in an apartment and when the thing exploded, the floor blew away and he was left sitting on the pot. Nobody got hurt. It was a modern miracle."
The one person who was seriously injured wasn't hurt by the explosion or fire. Jae Ahn broke her back when she leaped from a window, holding her 23-month-old daugher Hannah, to escape the fire. Hannah was fine other than some scrapes.
Then there was the news report of a 21-year-old man arrested at the scene of the fire – which had drawn a crowd of curious onlookers from around the East Side – for looting. The man reportedly told police he lived in one of the damaged homes and wanted to get some belongings. He allegedly took two guitars and some clothes and was arrested when he attempted to sell one of the guitars for $20 to a television reporter.
Meanwhile, exhibiting some of the darker levity that allows firefighters and police officers to cope with the work they face on a daily basis, Leach shared this tidbit:
"When I was going out with my wife ... the first place we went to eat was Someplace Else, which burned. Our second date was Pizza Man, which burned. And our third date was at Century Hall. We said, 'They're going to pay us not to come!'
I remember the night Century Hall burned. Do you? Share your memories using the Talkback feature below.
I had a friend who lived in one of those apartments above Larson's. She had just taken out her contact lenses when the entire side of her apartment sheared off. She was able to pick her way (barefoot and in pajamas!) down the rubble to the street. She eventually called me to come and pick her up so she had a place to stay that night. I was in journalism school at UWM at the time and hooked her up with Eldon Knoche, who wrote an article about her and her lost cat.
It was at the time my favorite choice for live music. Arroyo, Free Hot Lunch, The Britins, Kojo...we heard about the fire as we were out that night, from several miles away I remembered seeing the glow in the sky. When we got to the scene there was so much fire and heat, it was hard to tell what was all burning. I remember standing near the bank and feeling all the heat. What a shame, what a loss. Sidenote: My father's first job was at the hardware store that would become Larsons.
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