'A fearfully grand spectacle’: The night an entire Dayton city block was consumed in flames

All in one night, an entire Dayton city block was consumed in flames. 

Gone were several businesses including a grocery owned by Herman Sandmeier who perished in the flames that also destroyed the elegant venue that was a forerunner of today’s Victoria Theatre. 

» PHOTOS: Victoria Theatre: more than 150 years of history

The fire, on May 16, 1869, brought down the Turner Opera House, built in 1861 by brothers Joseph and William Turner, 

The Opera House was the cultural center of Dayton, showcasing the entertainment of the day. Shakespearean plays, dramatic readings and shows filled with singing and dancing took center stage. 

The Turner Opera House, built by brothers Joseph and William Turner, opened Jan. 1, 1866. . PHOTO COURTESY OF THE VICTORIA THEATRE
Photo: Lisa Powell

The Victorian structure housed an elegant auditorium and numerous retail shops with storefronts along Main Street. In the building’s basement was Lange’s billiard parlor and restaurant, known for its canned oysters. 

A “tardy citizen,” up past midnight, spotted “a bright light shining through the oval-third floor window” and sounded an alarm just before the window exploded, according to Bruce and Virginia Ronald’s book, “Now Playing, An Informal History of the Victoria Theatre.” 

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The fire was raging by the time firefighting apparatus arrived. A crowd gathered and volunteers stepped up to assist the firemen and residents of the building. 

Henry Kette used a ladder to climb to the second floor and rouse a sleeping family while others awoken by smoke used decorative ironwork on the outside of the building to climb down to safety. 

In May 1869 the Turner Opera House, now known as the Victoria Theatre, was destroyed by fire leaving only the facade along Main Street. DAYTON COLLECTION OF MARTIN J. KELLY / DAYTON DAILY NEWS ARCHIVES

The roof collapsed sending flames “several hundred feet above the monster building, a fearfully grand spectacle, and the whole city was illuminated as if by sunlight,” according to a depiction in The Dayton Journal. 

The elegant 1,300-seat theater, decorated in blue and gold with a 40 foot tall frescoed ceiling, was gone along with the underground restaurant. 

» RELATED: Victoria marks 150 years despite 2 fires, a flood and financial woes

The fire continued to spread down the block. Sandmeier, the grocer, was pinned by a falling timber as he attempted to save goods from his store. 

Two Dayton firefighters rushed in and unsuccessfully attempted to rescue him but barely escaped with their own lives before the walls caved in. 

The Victoria Theatre marked its 150th anniversary in 2016. Originally named the Turner Opera House, Dayton's oldest theatre opened Jan. 1, 1866. LISA POWELL / STAFF

When the inferno was over only a portion of the facade was left standing. The final estimate of loss came in at $550,000. The Turner’s only had $125,000 in insurance coverage. 

The following year a group of citizens and investors began to formulate plans for a new, fire-safe theater. 

In 1871 the Music Hall, established by Dayton businessmen Col. Daniel E. Mead, his brother Charles and Thomas Babbitt, opened and returned the arts to downtown Dayton.

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