In the 1920’s, one of Tucson’s richest men was Albert Steinfeld. When he was 18-years-old, the German-born Steinfeld came to Tucson in 1872 via stagecoach to work for his uncle Louis’ mercantile, Zeckendorf’s. Originally, Zeckendorf’s was a large one-story adobe building with a flat roof situated just west of Calle Real (in the Anglo-American era, it became Main Street, then Main Avenue), a dusty, often muddy, and always manure-rich transportation corridor running north-south through Tucson that commenced in Mexico City and ended in Alta California.
So pleased with the efforts and business acumen of his young nephew, Louis made Albert a partner two years later and changed the name of their store to L. Zeckendorf & Company.
After a dozen years, Albert set out on his own. In the decades that followed, he acquired extensive mining & banking interests. But the core of Albert’s business was in Downtown Tucson. The hugely successful Steinfeld’s Department Store was located at Pennington and Stone Avenue where the unimaginative B of A high-rise is today.Read More
The Year Tucson Got Its First Sky Scrapers
In 1929, when Albert was 75, he had long been president of Consolidated National Bank and the major stockholder. As such, he and son Harold were the force behind the building of Tucson’s first “skyscraper”, the 10-story Consolidated National Bank building at Stone Avenue and Congress Street. This structure, now in service of Chase Bank, cost an incredible $1 million to build.
(Those who appreciate local history might find the huge murals on the mezzanine level of interest. But you have to check in with the security guard.)
Almost simultaneously, Albert and Harold built the Pioneer International Hotel, also on Stone Avenue a few blocks north of their bank building and cater-corner (or if you prefer “kitty-corner”) to their Department Store. The 11-story hotel, became Tucson’s tallest building. It was THE place to be and be seen Downtown. This beautifully designed “modern skyscraper” catered to the prominent and well-to-do, particularly of the growing business community. Tucson’s largest Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs met here. The Cleveland Indians stayed here during Spring Training. It boasted the largest ballroom in the United States.
Designed by famous local architect Roy Place, the Spanish Revival hotel displayed beautifully ornate stone facades and an atrium. The hotel’s promotional material assured guests that this elegant, thoroughly modern hotel was “fire proof”.
Like its sister high-rise, the Consolidated National Bank building two blocks south on Stone, the Pioneer International Hotel cost about $1 million to build, back in the day when a million dollars was serious money.
A special newspaper section on the opening proclaimed the hotel “A crowning achievement in the annals of Tucson’s civic and commercial growth of the past decade and a harbinger of future unremitting progress.”
Everybody who was anybody enjoyed lunch in the hotel’s Tap Room. Out-of-town shoppers, mostly from Phoenix and Sonora, flocked to the Pioneer because it was right across the street from Jacome’s and Steinfeld’s, Tucson’s leading department stores. (Jacome’s (Hawk-ó-may’s) was located where the Downtown library is today.)
Over the years, many prominent Americans signed the Pioneer's guest register, including football great Knute Rockne, entertainer Liberace, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Western movie star Tom Mix, President Lyndon Johnson, and cowboy philosopher Will Rogers.
When interviewed in 2000 by the Tucson Citizen, 94-year-old native Tucsonan, Roy P. Drachman said, “It was the best hotel in town for many years. The Pioneer used to have a roof garden, where in summertime they would have dances and orchestras, with tables around the dance floor. This was in the ’30s, right after liquor was [again] legalized. It was a popular place.”
And it remained popular almost through 1970. By this time, Albert had been dead for 35 years. His son, Harold, was running the various Steinfeld enterprises, including Steinfeld’s Department Store. Harold and is wife, Margaret, lived across the street in the hotel’s penthouse on the 11th floor.
The Worst Day In Tucson History
Downtown Tucson was doing well until December 20, 1970. The Tucson Citizen Newspaper called it the “Worst Day In Tucson History”.
At 12:19 AM, emergency dispatchers took three calls: “fire at the Pioneer”. Veteran firefighters initially thought these alerts were another of the many false alarms; until they saw the bright orange glow across the Downtown skyline.
Three minutes later, 3 fire engines and two ladder trucks arrived. They called for back-up … lots of back-up. Fifteen minutes later, Tucson’s entire fire fighting arsenal was battling the inferno: 11 engines; 4 ladders; 5 medical rescue trucks; 203 firemen.
When the alarm was first sounded, there were over 700 people in the hotel. Over 350 were attending the Hughes Aircraft Christmas Party in the huge ballroom. Of the total, most got out safely. Twenty-nine did not; including Harold and Margaret Steinfeld.
“Fire-Proof”? Hardly. The open stairwells acted as chimneys, spreading the fire quickly to the upper floors. The carpets and wallpaper, and Christmas decorations, burned like kindling.
Exacerbating the problem of rescuing those in the upper floors, the fire department did not have ladders tall enough to reach them. Consequently, some guests in the upper floors made “ropes” out of bed sheets and blankets and scrambled out the windows. A few made it to safety. Others in desperation threw mattresses out the windows hoping to land on them when they jumped. The sidewalks were littered with crushed bodies as if they had been ripe watermelons dropped from 100 feet in the air.
Many young children and elderly burned to death. However, most victims died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Harold and Margaret died of smoke inhalation. It was an unmitigated catastrophe.
Once-vibrant Downtown Tucson would not recover for more than 40 years. After the fire, major Downtown businesses, including its once flourishing department stores, moved to the suburbs. Downtown became a derelict. Once elegant buildings became vacant or housed dive bars & porno theaters. The social elite were replaced by the homeless, down & out alcoholics and/or drug addicts and prostitutes.
The Rest Of The Story
Some hotel guests, employees, and bystanders tried to extinguish the fire, while others helped firemen get the injured onto stretchers and out of the burning building. Among those was Louis Taylor, a 16-year-old Negro boy who had been hanging out near the Hughes party trying to score a few drinks.
In the aftermath, investigators determined that the fire started at two places on the fourth floor; clearly purposely ignited.
Tucson police soon arrested young Louis Taylor, accusing him of starting the fire as a diversion so he could steal from rooms and the Hughes party. Taylor maintained his innocence, but was convicted of 28 counts of first-degree murder in 1972 and sentenced to life in prison. Case closed … at least for the next 42 years.
To the extent that there was something positive to gain from this tragedy, fire codes in Tucson and in cities throughout the United States were seriously upgraded. After the fire, any building over 4 stories tall had to have sprinklers and smoke detectors installed; as well as fire-resistant carpets, doored stairwells, etc. The cost of the retrofit was enormous. The cost of not retrofitting high-rises was even more expensive in lost human life and insurance claims.
To resolve another of the many oversights illuminated by the blaze, Tucson Fire Department immediately acquired the biggest ladder truck made at that time; 150 feet.
At the time of the Pioneer fire, their 100-foot ladders only reached the 8th floor windows.
The Curious Case of Young Louis Taylor
The fire prevention and fire fighting lessons learned on that horrible night were not forgotten. Young Louis Taylor was forgotten, at least by most folks.
At his 7-week trial in Phoenix, the fire investigator hired by the State of Arizona presented a profile suggesting that the arsonist was a young black man. Another investigator testified in Taylor's trial that an accelerant had been used in the fire. Yet that assertion was not supported by laboratory tests. Taylor, who is mixed Hispanic and African American, was convicted by an all-white jury during a time of racial tension in Tucson.
However, Judge Charles Hardy, who presided over Taylor’s 1972 trial, publicly expressed skepticism about the jury’s decision to convict the Tucson teenager.
For years after the trial, Judge Hardy maintained a correspondence with Taylor, sending him law books and Christmas packages.
In one letter he sent Taylor in the early 1980s, the judge, who died in December 2010, said he was negotiating with Arizona lawmakers to have the sentence commuted, but the deal was predicated on Taylor admitting guilt. Taylor refused.
In October 2012, attorneys with the Arizona Justice Project, a volunteer legal group that evaluates cases on behalf of inmates who claim they were wrongfully convicted, asked a court to dismiss the case or hold an evidentiary hearing.
The attorneys said several defense experts, using modern forensic fire science, would testify that they would not have ruled arson as the cause of the blaze. The defense team also alleged a prosecutor engaged in misconduct by not giving defense attorneys a laboratory report that said no “accelerants” were found and by talking to the judge without defense attorneys present.
More recently, an investigator with the Tucson Fire Department reviewed the available evidence in the case and was not able to determine what caused the blaze. Of course, many of the witnesses who testified at Taylor’s trial were now deceased and much of the original evidence had been lost or destroyed. So, forty years after the fact, arson investigators did not have access to all the evidence available to the original investigator, who still maintains that the fire was deliberately started … by someone.
His attorneys tried to convince Taylor to plead “Nolo contendere” as the most likely means of getting out of prison quickly. Now, all Taylor had to do was plead “No contest” as a part of an agreement to set aside his original conviction and give him credit for time served.
At first, Taylor rejected the offer. Throughout his ordeal, he always maintained his innocence. However, he finally accepted.
In April 2013, Louis Taylor, age 59, was set free to start a new life.