Historic Virginia hotel has had a history of fires

August 10, 2015

Jefferson Hotel, Richmond, Virginia in the 1920’s.

Twelve fires in seventy years is a stunning number of blazes. Even more surprising, is that eleven of them took place in just 29 years; and, there may have been more not found in this research.


Jefferson Hotel Richmond Virginia
Jefferson Hotel, Richmond, Virginia
Rotunda room Jefferson Statue Jefferson Hotel Richmond Virginia
Rotunda room, Jefferson Statue, Jefferson Hotel, Richmond, Virginia
Jefferson Hotel Lobby Richmond Virginia
Jefferson Hotel Lobby, Richmond, Virginia
Jefferson Hotel staircase Richmond Virginia
Jefferson Hotel staircase, Richmond, Virginia

Richmond, Virginia’s Jefferson Hotel has been around a long time and is considered by many as one of the grandest old hotels in the country. It is consistently rated as a 5 star luxury hotel. The esteemed ForbesTravel Guide’s highest designation is bestowed on only a handful of hotels in the United States, and the Jefferson has made their list a number of times.

It is the place to go for business people, world leaders, including many American Presidents, and countless Hollywood celebrities, such as Lucille Ball, John Wayne, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and many others. It is a venue for all types of special events, gourmet dining, and meetings. The hotel has quite an impressive history. And, unfortunately, it also has a history of fires – albeit, some minor. Others were not, and one killed six of the hotel’s guests.

Built in 1895, it is located on 2 acres in downtown Richmond. The hotel was an immediate success in the state’s capital city, and was referred to as the “magnificent structure.” It was designed in the beaux-art style of architecture, which also influenced the style for many luxury buildings built in America during that period.

On March 28, 1901, “Jefferson Hotel destroyed by fire,” read the Richmond Times Dispatch headlines. The fire started late at night and a defective flue in the linen room was the cause. There were no reported deaths, but many patrons fell down the stairs trying to escape the intense heat and blaze. It took six years to rebuild the structure, and this time, the new facility had many new safety systems.

By the 1940’s the fire of 1901 was part of the lore of The Jefferson. Articles occasionally appeared in the Richmond papers that reminisced about that terrible night. For decades The Jefferson confidently advertised itself as the “fire-proof hotel.” And, why not, since The Jefferson had stayed fire-free for over forty years! That ended on March 10, 1944. From that period to 1973, the hotel had 11 additional fires, and probably more.

Here are the fires as reported by the Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper:

March 10, 1944 – Killed were 6 guests, including a Virginia State Senator and the wife of a former Virginia Governor. It was determined that a cigarette butt was carelessly thrown in a hamper and started the fire. Bellmen did not immediately sound the alarm and the hotel’s fire hoses were discovered to be rotten and useless when used to fight the raging blaze. There was considerable damage and many injuries.

March 7, 1947- A fire erupted in the hotel’s kitchen.

November 7, 1948- A 3rd floor closet caught fire. A stack of newspapers was thought to be the cause.

October 13, 1954 – A cigarette butt caught the hotel’s arcade area on fire.

March 19, 1960 – The hotel’s restaurant kitchen catches fire.

January 2, 1963- A guest in a 6th floor room fell asleep and his lit cigarette caught the room on fire.

November 27, 1966 – There is another fire in the kitchen.

January 2, 1969 – One more fire in the kitchen. This one caused more extensive damage than the others.

July 17, 1969 – The boiler room caught fire. The suspected cause, again, was a lit cigarette.

February 21, 1973- 4th floor storage room caught fire.

February 24, 1973- An unoccupied guest room caught fire. The fire’s origin was unknown.

It would seem that the near ruinous fire of 1901, and then the deadly one in 1944, would have been enough lessons in fire safety for The Jefferson Hotel.

The 1944 fire brought about a number of costly lawsuits that may have financially strapped the hotel. Without enough funds to maintain the 400 room facility, it soon fell into disrepair. By the late 1970’s contractors estimated it would cost over 20 million dollars to restore The Jefferson. By 1980, the once “magnificent structure” was closed and remained vacant for nearly a decade.

For more information check out Paul Herbert’s book The Jefferson Hotel: The History of a Richmond Landmark, or the archives of the Richmond Times Dispatch.

More about Allen Cornwell

Allen Cornwell is a self-employed business owner and an adjunct American History professor at a small college. He lives in rural Virginia and enjoys history, sports, old movies and visiting all types of museums. Cornwell has had a number of American history articles published and he earned his M. A. degree in American History from Virginia Commonwealth University. He can be contacted at: allencornwell@mac.com

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