Halloween night in 1905 was all trick and no treat for Pensacolians. Shortly after midnight, a massive fire ripped through downtown Pensacola, forever reshaping the city’s commercial section.
An entire block of Palafox Street — an area that today contains the Blount Building, New York Nick’s, Global Grill, V Paul’s, and Dollarhide’s Music — was completely destroyed. The blaze caused an estimated $300,000 in damages — more than $7 million in today’s money.
“Practically all of the walls of the buildings from Garden street to Neri’s ice cream stand, a distance of 500 feet along Palafox street are down, the most of them falling out into the street,” wrote the Pensacola Journal. “The debris will have to be removed before the street car traffic can proceed on that street this morning.”
Around 12:25 a.m., two young men discovered the fire and alerted a nearby night watchman. The city’s paid and volunteer firefighter companies were summoned and began an all-out effort to halt the fire before it jumped a street and spread further.
Among the buildings engulfed by flames was a sporting goods store, whose stocks of gunpowder and ammunition resulted in several explosions. “The Bruce sporting goods house was among the first to reach such a state that no goods could be saved from it,” the Journal wrote. “Several terrific explosions occurred, each driving flying glass across the street. For some time previous to the blaze reaching that place workmen were engaged in removing goods from all of the stores, but when the explosions of the powder and cartridges occurred, no one would venture near. While a large amount of material of this character had exploded during this time, the heavy explosions were caused by spontaneous combustion, blowing out the big plate glass windows. Later when the blaze reached the portion of the Bruce store the small cartridges began to explode and sounded like Gatling guns in action.”
The fire is believed to have started in the Osceola Club, a “gentleman’s retreat” which counted among its members the business and political elite of the city. “The Oseola Club seemed to be the point where the fire was mainly centered,” said the Journal. “The entire upper portion of the stores was in a mass of flames. The firemen fought bravely under Chief Bicker and at one time it was feared that two or three of them would either be seriously injured or lose their lives.”
As the blaze continued to grow, a southerly wind raised fears that embers would jump Romana Street and threaten the rest of the city. In fact, the fire was so large that Pensacola’s fire chief reached officials in Mobile and urged them to load firefighting equipment onto a train car, in case the conflagration could not be contained. “A long distance phone from Mobile notified the Pensacola city officials that the engine with a full crew of men were ready to leave at a moment’s notice for Pensacola, should their services be necessary,” the Journal noted.
“It is a miracle that [the fire] did not sweep the whole western portion of the city clear through to the waterfront,” wrote the Journal on November 2.
However, firefighters were able to battle back the blaze, getting it largely under control by 3:00 a.m., though the ruins of the block continued to smolder through the morning. City street crews worked until noon the next day to clear Palafox Street of debris. Fortunately, no one was killed in the fire, and only one firefighter was injured, though not seriously, when he was hit in the head by a falling beam.
W. A. Blount and F. C. Brent — who together owned most of the property on the block — wasted no time rebuilding. The Pensacola Journal reported on November 7 that Lee Lewman of Atlanta-based Lewman Bros. construction firm had arrived in the city the previous day to begin drawing up plans for a new building on Brent’s portion of the block. Architectural drawings were presented within a few weeks, and construction proceeded rapidly. An open house was held on August 1, 1906, and tenants moved in well in advance of the first anniversary of the fire.
Blount decided to erect a seven-story building on his corner. When completed in 1907, the new Blount Building became the tallest building in Florida, retaining that title until the 11-story American National Bank Building — today called Seville Tower — was completed in 1909.