Simeon Gross’s gross building experience

PHOTOGRAPHER:

On Feb. 17, 1890, the Gloversville Daily Leader carried a short announcement that local businessman Simeon S. Gross, “purchased from George Willard the property adjoining his new brick block on Church Street.” Newspaper references to Simeon Gross profile him as a well-regarded, self-made member of Gloversville’s business establishment, public-spirited and dedicated to forwarding Gloversville’s late 19th century economic development, and the fact that he was a long-serving Alderman supports this.

Gross’s lot, he informed the newspaper, would soon contain a new downtown hotel, more elegant than any yet experienced in the city. A forward thinker, Gross already had architect’s plans costing $1500 drawn and contractors hired. Construction that would consume more than a year began in late March 1890, with the expectation of a gala November 1891 opening.

That it would be an impressive building and mirror Gloversville’s thriving economic expansion is suggested by newspaper snippets describing its progress.

For example, “The Davis Company of Rutland, Vermont will furnish marble for the Gross hotel to the value of about $5,000 for marble mantels and a marble floor in the office.” Alderman Gross was also frequently lauded for his willingness to put his money back into the community.

Come October 1891, and with the new hotel nearing completion, the grand opening was highly anticipated.

What could go wrong?

Nothing, until the early morning of Friday, Oct. 2.

To quote Saturday’s Daily Leader, “Officer Johnson passed the vicinity at 3:45 o’clock and found everything in good order, but within half an hour, Elmer Owen, who lives across the street, saw flames and gave the alarm. Officer Grandy sent the alarm in from Box 26, to which our fire department responded quickly. Soon a second alarm was sent, only to be followed by the continuous call for a general turnout. Before the third alarm sounded, the streets were already crowded with gawkers. Sparks flew in all directions, some as large as bricks. Every minute sparks would catch on some nearby building, which was immediately drenched with water.”

In all, seven streams were kept operating, the firemen wisely realizing early on that the only practical thing to do was to keep the fire from spreading. Several aldermen also served as volunteer firemen and gave the police, who were having difficulty keeping the large crowd back, permission to use their clubs if necessary.

Unfortunately, one special feature of Simeon Gross’s grand design doomed his creation: the hotel contained a beautiful central staircase with a sky light at roof level, a natural wind tunnel, greatly increasing the velocity of the flames.

“The flames shot upward, burning madly, firing the freshly painted wood and varnish.” Leaping skyward through this center funnel, the flames quickly ignited the roof.

“At 5:20, the elegant structure was doomed, the north wall soon fell with a great crash, carrying telephone, electric light and fire alarm cables in all directions. One wall fell after another. Nearly $100,000 went up in smoke in two hours.”

Poor Mr. Gross.

The Leader related, “When he learned fire was in his hotel, he stopped for nothing but his trousers, which he drew on over his night shirt.” He was quoted as remarking, “Yes, it is a hard blow for me. I suppose there are many who feel as badly about it as I do, for it would have been a great benefit to the city. A month later, it would have been ready to occupy.” At least he could take comfort the building was partly insured for $46,000, better than nothing.

“I was sole owner of the building,” he told reporters. “I shall take time and decide whether or not to rebuild.”

Mr. Gross wasn’t financially ruined, but it’s doubtful he kept all the insurance money after satisfying a number of contractor’s lawsuits. He did, fortunately, have fingers in other pies, including ownership of a bottling plant/brewery.

Of more immediate concern to Gross and others was how the fire started.

Rumors it was caused by arson spread rapidly like, well, fire, but no evidence was found, even though Gross went on record complaining his workers were careless about locking doors and he himself had found derelicts lounging inside at night more than once.

Nor were the ruins rapidly removed.

As late as April 27, 1898, “Alderman Anthony reported portions of the Gross hotel ruins were in a dangerous condition. The mayor will order removal of the dangerous portions.” He promptly served Gross with an order to remove these ‘dangerous portions’ or it would be done and himself charged.

It wasn’t until 1905 when the vacant lot was finally purchased. The Nov. 14, 1904 Amsterdam Recorder informed readers, “The Gross hotel site was purchased by Judge Mills as attorney for out-of-town parties. After the fire, it became the possession of the Fulton County National Bank.”

An imposing new building known as Arietta Hall was soon built and provided both business office space and a popular dancing/exhibition center.

On Oct. 2, 1949, it became the property of the Gloversville YWCA, which remained there until fairly recently.

Fortunately, while several firemen were slightly injured, no fatalities occurred.

Many years later, on July 22, 1927, Mr. Gross died at his home, 106 Bleecker St., aged 79. A Civil War veteran with Revolutionary War ancestors, 4th Ward Alderman Simeon S. Gross’s death reportedly was due not to mourning his lost hotel but simply to “the infirmities of age.”

By Patricia Older

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