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Hillside Inn Fire Remembered

Lucht family members,
area residents recall 1964 fire

The early morning December blaze destroyed
the original Hillside Inn

January 2018 Cover

MADISON, Ind.
(January 2018) – It was a cold December morning in 1964 when the call came in to Madison, Ind., volunteer fire departments that the Hillside Inn (then known as the Hillside Hotel) was on fire. John David Lucht, whose parents, John and Lydia Lucht, owned and operated the hotel, said he was awakened around 4 a.m. by his then wife Shirley, who told him to get up because she thought the hotel was on fire.
The couple lived just below the hotel at 906 Second St., and Lucht managed the hotel bar and lounge for his parents. “At first, I thought it was just a brush fire on the hillside behind the hotel because that had happened before.” But when Lucht got up and looked out the window, he said he saw a big red glow in the sky above their house. He knew at that moment it was the hotel that was on fire.

Hillside Inn Timeline

• 1925: Built by Dr. George Denney
• 1934: Sold to John and Lydia Lucht
• 1981: Luchts sell to Bill and Jean Harned
• 1989: Harneds sell to Tom and Patricia Thomassen
• 1999: Hotel auctioned at bankruptcy; Jerry Fuhs of French Lick, Ind., is highest bidder
• 2005: After extensive remodeling, Fuhs sells to Gary Zaveri of Knoxville, Tenn.

It was 6 a.m. on Tuesday morning. Dec. 15, and the temperature outside was below freezing. The couple made arrangements for a friend to watch their children and then headed up the hill to the fire, which was well on its way to completely destroying the majestic building that sat high above the city at the far east end of Main Street.
The Hillside Inn had long been an iconic fixture in Madison, and many townspeople enjoyed visiting the hotel restaurant and lounge, which was housed in a rotunda type, glassed-in room with a sweeping view of the city and Ohio River down below. It wasn’t long before word of the fire spread, and soon dozens of volunteer firemen from Madison’s six companies plus Hanover and the Jefferson Proving Ground were on their way.
Fair Play No. 1 volunteer firefighters Joe Knoebel, Robert Cobb and Bill Goble were the first three to arrive on the scene, Knoebel recalled. They set up the truck at the bottom of the hill and started pumping water from down below. It was so cold that some of the water pumps froze and water running down the hill on both sides of the hotel froze, making the fire fight even more difficult. Knoebel said the fire companies did not have the kind of equipment that is available today, so they were very much at a disadvantage in fighting such a large fire.
“We have only six helmets and six fire coats; not boots or pants or accessories,” said Knoebel, 80. “So the first six guys who arrived got the helmets and coats. The rest just wore whatever.”
Knoebel said he and John Thacker and Cobb climbed onto the roof of the restaurant to try and put some water on the fire. Knoebel said he heard Thacker say to Cobb that he saw the big “Hillside Inn” sign on top of the building starting to lean. “I said to him, ‘No, that sign’s about to cave in!’ So we quickly got off the roof, and sure enough, the sign fell through the roof a little bit later.”

Historical photo courtesy of Ron Grimes of the Jefferson County Historical Society Archives

The original Hillside Inn is pictured below as it looked prior to the devastating 1964 fire. It was built in 1925 by Dr. George Denny, who initially operated it until 1934 when he sold it to his then-managers, John and Lydia Lucht.

Knoebel, who joined the fire company in 1960, today is the fourth longest member at Fair Play No. 1, so he’s seen a lot of fires over the years. “That was the first major fire since I joined the firehouse, and by that I mean major. It was also one of the hottest fires I have ever been in.”
His brother, John Knoebel, 80, of Madison is the third oldest active registered volunteer firefighter at the Fair Play No. 1 firehouse. He was 27 when he joined his fellow firefighters to battle the blaze at the Hillside Inn early that cold Tuesday morning.
“It was pretty well going by the time we got up there. It was a wooden, stucco building, so it went up pretty quickly,” John Knoebel remembered.
“It was cold (17 degrees, according to reports). When we got there, the hotel guests were standing outside watching it. There were a couple of Marine recruiters staying there, and they were wearing only pants and a T-shirt. They lost everything else.”
Hotel guests were crawling out of windows when firemen arrived, according to the Madison Courier story published later that day. The report said Firemen used ladders to help hotel guests escape from the third floor, many of whom were screaming for help. All 33 guests were men that night, with no women or children present.
John and Lydia Lucht lived in the house located about 75 yards from the hotel, and they had let some of the hotel guests inside to get warm, Knoebel recalled.
Meantime, the No. 1 firefighters fought the fire from the east side, pumping water up from Park Avenue, Knoebel said. “The No. 4s had a fire truck up there but the transmission went out, so it was useless.”
The No. 3s fought the fire from just below the hotel near where A-to-Z Lawn and Garden shop is today. Knoebel couldn’t recall where the firefighters from No. 2 and No. 5 firehouses were stationed, but they were there.

Historical photo courtesy of Ron Grimes of the Jefferson County Historical Society Archives

This historical photo show firefighters battling the blaze on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 1964. The fire completely gutted the building and caused problems for firemen due to the sub-freezing temperatures.

“We worked our way into the front room where the restaurant had been located, but when the roof started to collapse and the sign started to come down, we had to get out,” he said.
“The sign blew down and it was completely destroyed. It burned all the way down to the first floor and even into the basement. We did the best we could.”
John Knoebel said the firefighters worked all day to put out the flames and made 14-16 more trips up there over the following two weeks to put out hot spots that continued to smolder.
Knoebel ranks the size of that fire right up there with Madison’s two other large fires in modern history – the Elks Club Building fire of August 2006 and the Jefferson County Court-house, which burned in May 2009.
“It was one of the finer hotels in town at the time, so it had quite an impact on the community,” Knoebel said. “And it took quite a while for them to rebuilt it. It’s a shame it had to happen. If the hotel had been equipped with the kind of sprinkler systems we have today, it might have been saved.”
John David Lucht recalled going into the restaurant with fireman Charlie Hill to retrieve the cash register. “There was smoke everywhere. We got the cash register out of there and most of the unopened bottles of alcohol. But later, the ATC (Alcohol & Tobacco Commission) guys made us dump it all out because it wasn’t any good. That was about $2,000 worth of alcohol.”

Area residents recall fire

Susan Demaree Buchan-an of Madison was only 12 years old at the time, living on the hilltop on State Street. She recalled that the glow from the fire could be seen from her house.
Her father, Lester Demaree, fought the fire as a member of the No. 5 Firehouse, located on the hilltop on Allen Street.
“There was a huge glow in the sky that you could see from the hilltop,” said Buchanan, 66, a retired businesswoman with her late husband, Roger.
She remembered her father saying how bad the fire was afterward. “Dad said it was the worst fire he had ever seen, and he was a firefighter for the No. 5 all his life.”
Janie Buchanan, 72, recalled how her father, Bob Hines, was good at making the best of a bad situation. “I remember my dad helping himself to a bottle of Wild Turkey carrying it in his Carhartt jacket and then sliding down the Hillside Inn’s driveway on his rear because he couldn’t stand up on the ice-covered driveway while fighting the fire. You had to know my dad. He was a funny guy. I was 19 at the time, living with my parents and working as a hairdresser at Taft’s Beauty Shop in the Clifty Drive Shopping Center.
“He said that as fast as they pumped the water on the fire, the water froze because of the extreme cold temperatures. They were fighting an endless battle.

Photo by Don Ward

The Hillside Inn is pictured as it looks today. It underwent a significant renovation in 2000 after Jerry Fuhs bought it at auction. He later sold it in 2005 to Gary Zaveri of Knoxville, Tenn.

“It was a dangerous situation and there was the loss of life, as I remember it. My memories are light hearted because they were memories of my dad. My dad died in 1974. The fire was a terrible tragedy.”
on that end of town,” said Pritchard, 66.
He went to school that day, and everyone was talking about it. It inspired me to join the No. 6 fire department (located on Clifty Drive next to the high school) when I was 21.”
Pritchard joined the company in 1978 and just recently retired, going on senior status. Pritchard said everyone was interested in how the fire started and about the man who died in the fire. “We were told it was a salesman from out of town.
Indeed, the fire claimed the life of chemical salesman Richard Brown, 45, of Lutherville, Md. He was staying in Room 205 on the second floor. His body and the furniture from his room were found later that morning on the floor below his room in a pile of steaming debris, according to the Madison Courier story that day. The Red Cross’ Canteen Unit treated several people at the scene. Nine people were taken to King’s Daughters’ Hospital, and five were treated with injuries that were not considered serious.
Two days later, the Indiana State Fire Marshal determined that the fire started in Brown’s room. Some suspected the fire was caused from a cigarette, but Brown’s friends claimed he did not smoke.
John David Lucht said he heard rumors years later that Brown was a chain smoker, and that Brown and a friend were smoking cigars in the room that night. “I can’t prove it; that was just hearsay that I heard a few years later. But during the insurance case, they claimed he didn’t smoke. I’m not so sure that he caused the fire. My father died wondering what happened.”
So no one really knows to this day for sure what caused the fire that caused an estimated $350,000 in damage. What’s even worse, the Luchts had just completed a $150,000 renovation of the hotel during the preceding 14 months before the fire.

All in the Family

Built in 1925 by Dr. George Denny, the Hillside Inn was one of the first stucco buildings built in Madison, according to the Madison Courier report. John and Lydia Lucht managed the hotel for Denny for many years before they eventually bought it from Denny in 1934, according to the Luchts’ granddaughter, Jennifer German.
The Luchts continued to operate it until 1981, when they sold it to Bill and Jean Harned. During that time, Denny had died and, at the time of the fire, his widow, Roberta, owned and managed the Denny Hotel (now the Victoria Inn) located at the foot of the hill from the Hillside Inn.
It took the Luchts two years to rebuild the hotel after the fire. The rebuilt hotel opened on June 13 1966, John David Lucht recalled. He said the debris from the hotel fire was hauled down to the riverfront and dumped in a hole at the Madison Gas Co. property. “My dad was on the gas company board then, and they wanted it to fill in a hole,” he said. “I’ll bet not many people in Madison know that.”
John David Lucht said he helped to rebuild a new hotel on the site. Many townspeople said the rebuilt hotel lacked the character of the original, and some of the Lucht family members agree. But it has since survived through four additional owners to this day and continues to operate, thanks in part of an extensive renovation in 2000 by one former owner, Jerry Fuhs of French Lick, Ind.

Photo courtesy of Mary Jo Lucht Schlomann

John and Lydia Lucht first managed the Hillside Inn for George Denny and then owned it from 1934-1981. They died in 1985.

Fuhs bought the property in November 1999 at a bankruptcy auction from then-owners Tom and Patricia Thomassen, who had operated the hotel for a decade. Fuhs then sold the hotel in 2005 to Gary Zaveri of Knoxville, Tenn.
During the Luchts’ years of ownership, several family members – children and grandchildren – grew up working at the Hillside Inn in various capacities. They also played in the yard and woods on the hill behind the hotel, German remembered.
“Our family has a long history at the hotel,” said German, 56, now a resident of Coldwater, Mich.
Her parents divorced many years ago, and her mother, Shirley Bacon, 80, still lives in Madison. The Germans still visit the town each year at Christmas, she said. “We love it there,” she said.
John David Lucht, meanwhile, remarried and now lives in Henderson, Nev., to be near his grandchildren. He stays in contact with a few Madison childhood friends, namely Joe Knoebel and Tony Dattilo, who owns Dattilo’s Fruit Market.
Buchanan said she tends to “remember the good stuff. The joke with the firemen was “save the bar!”
At the time, the firemen didn’t know someone was dead. My story sounds a little shallow to those who suffered loss. My dad asked us to save a bottle of unopened liquor for his wake. We did as he had asked us to do. When we opened it, it was nasty. We had to pour it out.”
Tom Pritchard grew up on West Main Street in Madison and attended Madison Junior High when it was located on Broadway Street. He was a 13-year-old seventh-grader the day the fire broke out early that morning at the Hillside Inn. He recalls hearing the fire engines rolling through town toward the hotel.
“I didn’t go up there to the fire but I heard the engines, and I remember how thick the smoke was “In fact I call Joe about every two weeks to catch up on the news there and to see who’s still around,” Lucht said during a December telephone interview.
Lucht has many fond memories and great stories about his time spent managing the Hillside Inn bar. He said that in November, he found the first dollar spent at the bar after the rebuilt hotel had opened. The dollar came from his friend, Dattilo, when he was making a fruit delivery there.
“I said, ‘Tony, how about a drink before you leave?’ And he said OK. And that was the first dollar spent there. So I found the dollar and mailed it back to him a few weeks ago. I told Tony I wanted him to have it.”
John and Lydia Lucht both died in 1985 – just 10 weeks apart. “My grandmother died in April, and my grandfather died in July,” German said. “They were lost without each other and were meant for each other.”
German said Lydia Lucht was very active with King’s Daughters’ Hospital’s Bethany Circle and was very musically inclined. “She played the organ and piano by ear for St. Mary’s Church, and she was a great cook. She also had a wonderful sense of humor.”
Another granddaughter, Jodi Sinclair, 51, of Indianapolis, remembered the story about her grandmother first wanting to study to be a nurse but was unable to pursue that career because one of her fingers was paralyzed. She wound up working in Clifty Inn’s dining service, which she loved. “After that experience, she always wanted to own a hotel; it was her dream.”
Sinclair also recalled that working with her five siblings at the hotel as a teenager had its moments. “I once met (actor and comedian) Tiny Tim there and other celebrities while working in the dining room. It was crazy!”
She and her five siblings were also tasked with cleaning rooms and mowing grass and other odd jobs.

“It was a family business, so we all grew up with that hard work ethic because of it,” German said. “We spent a lot of time there.”

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