By TIM HORAN
Fire completely destroyed the historic Kirby House in downtown Abilene. The fire started sometime between 2 and 6 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday morning flames could still be seen coming from the cupola.
“We got the call approximately 6:02 p.m. last night. We have no idea what time it actually started,” said Abilene Fire Chief Bob Sims. “They closed the business at two o’clock so sometime between 2 and 6 last night. We have no idea where the fire started in the structure itself.”
He said the state fire marshal will start looking for a cause on Friday.
Sims said the fire spread quickly because of “balloon construction.”
“There are no fire stops in the walls,” he said. “You start in the basement with 2x4s and you go straight to the attic. All of the old homes in Abilene are built this way.
“The fire starts from the bottom and goes up. That’s all we were doing was chasing fire from one area to the next area because it just keeps going from this little joint here to the next.
“It’s a tragedy this happened,” Sims said. “The best thing about it was that nobody was injured, nobody was hurt.”
Thursday morning the cupola was knocked down. The fire was burning inside and firefighters were unable to get water inside to put out the blaze.
It will go down in history as one of the worst fires in the history of Abilene. On a cold February morning in 1982 fire struck the Seelye Mansion on Buckeye.
Terry Tietjens, who had just bought the Seelye Mansion in 1982 said the Abilene Fire Department and Grant Township Fire Department along with 50 men from Hulcher Services, Inc. saved the structure and it was rebuilt.
Terry and Jerry Tietjens purchased the Kirby House in 1986. After an 11-month restoration, the home was opened as a fine-dining restaurant. It has gone through several changes since. Vangie Henry owned the restaurant and coffee shop for 12 years before selling it to the current owners, Rob and Melodie Sprouse.
Doug Smart of Smart Insurance said that the Sprouses had good insurance coverage.
Smart said, next to his own home which burned down in 1996, it is one of the worst fires in recent history.
“They have loss of use coverage. They will have their expenses paid,” Smart said. “The policy is endorsed for the clean up and everything. That’s what we are here for.
“They (Sprouses) were emotional wrecks last night, understandably,” Smart said.
“We had a fire six or seven years ago about a week before Christmas,” he said of the Kirby House. “That started in the front room from a candle that had relit itself. That fire was in the morning. They served 150 customers that night. Servicemaster came in and Merry Maids cleaned it up. Needless to say, they are not going to serve anyone again.”
As a result of the fire, Abilene lost one of its historic attractions.
The house built in 1885 by Abilene banker Thomas Kirby was on the original site where Joseph McCoy built his home. McCoy made Abilene the first cowtown in Kansas and was the man who extended the Chisholm Trail from Wichita to Abilene.
In 1885, Kirby moved the McCoy house two blocks over and had it remodeled. Then, he built the Italianate frame house for his wife and daughter, Gertrude.
In 1986 it had been chopped up into an apartment house. But Tiejens, who had restored the historic Seelye Mansion on North Buckeye Avenue, considered the Kirby House to also be one of the town’s historic gems.
“Abilene needed a nice restaurant and that house I spent a great deal of my energy on,” Tietjens said Thursday. “This is a real loss to our community and to the state, for sure.”
“It’s an unfortunate tragedy, one that is not really replaceable,” said City Manager David Dillner. “I think the community will be willing to move forward. It will be interesting to see what the next chapter is. I think what we need to do is figure out a way to preserve the history of the building because it is an important piece of the history of the community.”
Abilene Police Chief Mark Heimer called the crowd of onlookers “moderate.”
“There were no issues that caused any type of safety concerns,” he said. “We had some traffic control issues.
“There are always people that come out to see what they can do,” he added. “There was media presence as well. All of that adds to vehicular traffic. When, in terms of the pedestrians, everybody was very cooperative. They understood it was an active scene and were very respectful of what the fire department was doing.”