How Tragedy Hit the Department Store and Downtown Landmark
The Wolf and Dessauer Department Store opened its doors to the people of Fort Wayne in 1896—the same year Henry Ford ran his first motor car in Detroit. Wolf and Dessauer flourished, expanding from a two-story building to a four-story one, until it eventually owned a number of buildings in downtown Fort Wayne. The store offered its customers unheard of amenities: escalators, personal shoppers, and the magical Christmas WanDerland complete with Santa and his precious elf, Wee Willie WanD.
Eventually, Wolf and Dessauer built a new flagship location, a white, six-story terra-cotta building that was one of the largest retail establishments in Indiana. It gained the nickname of “the white elephant” and became the hub of downtown retail activity.
But in the middle of this success, the Wolf and Dessauer empire also suffered a terrible fire, one of the very worst in Fort Wayne history. The date was February 10, 1962—a bitterly cold one. But the fire quickly spread, filling the whole downtown area with smoke.
The first reports that came in claimed “W&D is on fire,” so the fire department understandably headed to the new store first. But the fire was elsewhere. Five downtown buildings, including several used by Wolf and Dessauer, were either leveled or severely damaged.
The cold turned the water necessary to fight the fire into ice, even as it came out of the hoses. Even so, the tireless efforts of the Fort Wayne firefighters prevailed, with the full force of the department being on the scene for more than twelve hours. Some rested for only a brief period, only to return a few hours later until the fire was resolved.
It was reported that the fire chief of the time, Howard Blanton, said, “It wasn’t until nine thirty on Saturday night that the fire was brought under complete control.” This fire was reported by the Journal Gazette to be a multimillion-dollar disaster. It was touted to be the most devastating fire in the city’s history, needing 3 million gallons of water to put it out.
Wolf and Dessauer survived the fire, and business at “the white elephant” continued to thrive. What ended the W&D wasn’t a fire but something else: the store’s purchase, first by City Stores and then by L.S. Ayers, all while new retail trends slowly drew customers away from downtown.
The department store beat the 1962 fire. What it couldn’t beat was the suburban mall.