March 3, 1945
On the morning of March 3rd Harry Huffington, the janitor for both the Grand and Iowa theatres, notices a small fire in the walls near the ceiling of the auditorium. He immediately hit the fire alarm and soon after employees of the Gedney Hotel noticed flames inside a linen closet on the second floor. The hotel hit its fire alarm and all hotel guests, businesses, and residents of the block began to evacuate.
Firefighters initially entered the theatre only to find the balcony engulfed along with the projection booth. The fire chief, Paul Soener, ordered his men out of the building. As they were exiting, a huge explosion blew them out the front doors. The rear (east) wall of the theatre collapsed and exposed the fire under the floor and around the stage. The ceiling of the Gedney Smoke Shop then fell in and flames began to spread rapidly. In the very short time between the fire alarm and the first explosion, Dr. Erdice was somehow able to get most of his optometry equipment out. Flames we over 100 feet in the air by now and debris was being scattered everywhere. Firetrucks from the State Hospital west of town, as well as Oelwein, showed up and at one time they had 17 streams of water going onto the structures. The front (west/storefronts) wall began to give and eventually collapsed outward into the street, breaking windows and doors across the street at the furniture store, Raymond Print Shop, and Weiher Jewelry. By the middle of the afternoon, there was little of the block left standing. Reports mention that the fire could be seen more than 10 miles away.
Meanwhile, Bob and Dorothy were in Chicago visiting Bob’s parents. It would take them a day and a half to return by train. As they came down Chatham Street the buildings were still smoldering and shock set in. All that remained was the south three-story wall along the alley and a smokestack on the southeast corner of the lot.
The Gedney Fire was estimated to have caused well over $300,000 ($4 million today) in damages. Of the other business on the block, the Smoke Shop and Iowa Liquor Store suffered the most damage. The ceiling of the Smoke Shop collapsed within five minutes of the alarm, giving employee Harry Preble no time to gather and save anything. The Gedney Tap Room was also a complete loss. They never officially found the cause of the fire but it is believed to have started in the projection booth at the Grand Theatre. This was a likely cause as film stock is extremely flammable.
It didn’t take long for Bob to decide he was in fact going to rebuild as he wanted to give the citizens a modern show house. They bought the lot on the southwest corner, where the liquor store and smoke shop were, of the block and would begin rebuilding as soon as the remaining structures were torn down and the rubble removed. At this point, the Iowa Theatre was still in operation and they would do a slight remodel (lights and carpet) and begin showing “A” pictures instead of the current “B” pictures.
Bob initially promised a new theatre by that summer but with the war still going on, there was a severe labor and materials shortage. The date was then moved to October of 1945 but new construction didn’t officially start until November.