Although many people are familiar with Montrose Court’s history as the alleged headquarters of notorious gangster Al Capone, few people might know that the complex was gutted by a fire when it was just 6 years old.
Built in 1922, Montrose Court had its fair share of questionable history during the roaring 1920s, but a fire left the building in ruins in 1928. According to an issue of the Johnson City Staff News dated from the day of the fire, the damages done to Montrose court were estimated at a quarter of a million dollars.
The following letter was written in 1928 by Nancy Barnes, who was a resident of Montrose Court at the time of the fire:
I can never forget the 13th of November, which proved an unlucky day sure enough for all at Montrose Court. Still, we can be thankful for many things, and one was that it burned during the day; it would have been an horrible experience at night, and no doubt some lives would have been lost. As it was, four ladies had to be carried out.
It started in one of the Germans’ apartments on the third floor, and he was at the Bemberg plant. It was not discovered as soon as it might have been had he been there.
The firemen felt sure at first they could put it out, and as we were on the first floor, and at the back of the building, they told me we were safe. But when the smoke had begun to fill the long halls, and I saw them putting a ladder up over my window to bring an old lady down, I said “Hadn’t we better get out?” And the fireman said yes.
And you should have seen us — I gathered the little children’s coats and caps and we took them to the Misses Morrisons. The maid I had was dropping things all along the street, she was so excited.
I phoned to Mr. Barnes to come home, that the building could not be saved. So he came, and with the aid of his friends, most of the furniture and everything was carried out. But we lost many things, and many were wet and broken. Still, we were VERY fortunate to save so much, for some lost everything they had.
It is a sad sight to see the remains of Montrose Court, but they expect to rebuild soon. Our friends who were there are scattered all over Johnson City.
Mrs. Barnes’ daughter was a young girl when the fire occurred.
“I don’t remember much, but I remember being scared,” Emily McClellan said recently. “For some time the sound of fire engines scared me.”
She said her mother had thought that the fire spread through the walls of the building quickly because of the dumbwaiters.
An article from the Staff News from the following day reported that all vacant homes and apartments in Johnson City had been listed with the Chamber of Commerce for those who had suddenly found themselves homeless because of the fire.
McClellan said her parents moved back in the 1950s and she later moved into the complex with her husband after it was rebuilt.
Montrose Court is now a historic landmark that bears no scars from the fire that destroyed what was then the city’s largest and most expensive apartment building.