WIBW Video Vault: KU’s Hoch Auditorium burns down 30 years ago Tuesday

On June 15, 1991. Onlookers watch as Hoch Auditorium burns to the ground. Officials say the blaze was sparked by a lightning strike.
Updated: Jun. 15, 2021 at 10:58 AM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - On June 15, 1991, just days before scheduled improvements were to begin, a lightning bolt split and seared the roof of KU’s Hoch Auditorium, sparking a massive blaze.

“The fire started around 3:20 p.m., shortly after a violent thunderstorm began pelting the Lawrence area with heavy rain and pea-sized hail,” said Kansas Alumni magazine. “The void between the ceiling and the roof … provided nearly 550,000 cubic feet of air. Over 58,000,000 BTU’s of heat were possible with the amount of wood and air present in the void. Add a channel of lightning that is capable of producing heat exceeding 53,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and you have fire.”

At the time, KU said a fire engineer from the Lawrence Fire Department was already on campus to respond to a fire alarm at Watson Library allowing firefighters to reach the Auditorium within minutes. While most of the Department’s firefighters were fighting a fire on the northside of Lawrence at Packer Plastics, six firefighters at Hoch did their best, gained access to the Auditorium and attempted to extinguish the fire. However, it said the firefighters never had a chance.

“The fire was at such a high temperature that the water was essentially evaporating before it reached the flames,” said the Kansas Engineer.

KU said by 7 p.m. that day over 70 firefighters successfully extinguished the fire, but not before the Auditorium was a complete ruin. Not only did the campus lose one of its six buildings listed on the National Historic Registry, but the fire also destroyed archival material from its FM radio station, KANU, and displaced classes that were scheduled to be taught in the building in the fall.

The University of Kansas says Hoch Auditorium was originally built in 1927 to replace Robinson Gymnasium as the school and basketball programs continued to expand.

According to KU, before its October 1927 dedication, the state fire inspector responded to questions about the safety of Hoch Auditorium and said that while the supporting arches were made of wood, the height of the ceiling reduced the risk of a wood fire that would threaten the whole structure. However, three years after its dedication, with fear that a heavy snowfall would collapse the roof, contractors reinforced it with more heavy wood beams, which was perfect kindling for a fire.

The University said many had claimed the building was unsafe in the six decades that had passed, including executive vice chancellor Del Shankel, who warned of a potential structural flaw that would be disastrous, “The ceiling is highly flammable and the curtains are flammable,” he told the University Daily Kansan. “A fire could go through that whole roof in a hurry if one ever got started.” Mathematics professor Robert D. Adams concurred, wondering “why we schedule anything in Hoch, especially if it’s going to have a full house. The place is a tinderbox.”

The Kansan uncovered that Hoch Auditorium’s interior was covered with Celotex, an acoustic-enhancing material. It noted that Celotex had been banned for use in construction in 1970 due to its intense flammability. When it asked the director of the physical plant, Harry M. Buchholz, he said the problems with the building arose due to the structure of the building and added that it was very old and would take a lot of funding to bring up to current safety standards.

The March 1992 edition of Kansas Engineer even said, “When the KU Police Department offices were housed in the building, they would move their vehicles as storms rolled into Lawrence. Lightning would often hit Hoch, causing roof material to slide off the roof and down onto the cars below.”

The University said no one had ever thought it would have been beneficial to install a rooftop lightning rod until mid-1991.

According to KU, before the fire, Hoch had hosted the annual Rock Chalk Revue for four decades and had been the venue for celebrities including John Philip Sousa, Sergey Rachmaninoff, Isaac Stern, John F. Kennedy, Bob Marley, Count Basie, Steve Martin, Itzhak Rabin and former British prime minister Anthony Eden.

Today, Hoch Auditoria is the name of only three lecture halls, 110, 120 and 130, in Budig Hall and contains the most modern multimedia tools located on an easy to use touch panel on the lectern at the front of each room as well as a technician scheduled to handle any issues that arise during class times.

For more information, click HERE.

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