Story and Photos by Jodi Camp
Flames reached 40 to 50 feet in the air as firefighters spent 12 hours trying to get the fire under control. Their worry was to keep the blaze from spreading to the rest of the businesses on the block.
On June 6, 2016, Hopkinsville’s historic Peter Postell building was burned beyond recognition after it was struck by lightning in a heavy thunderstorm.
“It was one of the largest fires I’ve ever responded to in my career,” said Capt. Steve Futrell, who has been a firefighter for the Hopkinsville Fire Department for the past 18 years.
Two minutes after receiving an emergency call, the Hopkinsville Fire Department first responders arrived on Sixth Street in the pouring rain to see flames shooting from the roof and the windows of the Peter Postell building.
The first unit on the scene tried to make entry into the building, but when the battalion chief saw how much the fire had progressed he pulled them back. A few minutes later, the floor of the building collapsed.
There were four stations with 40 fire fighters working in teams placed at each corner of the building to get the fire under control. They had to call in off duty firefighters to work at the stations in case other emergency calls came in.
“The biggest concern for the chiefs was not letting it spread to the surrounding structures and protecting people from collapse,” Futrell said.
Janie Moss, owner of the Sixth Street Boutique, remembered that she and her husband were in bed when her daughter called to tell them a building on Sixth Street was on fire. She and her husband left the house so fast she forgot to take her purse or phone with her.
“I have never in my life seen a fire like that,” Moss said. “It was just unbelievable; it looked like all of Hopkinsville was on fire.”
Moss remembered seeing burning chunks of the building flying through the air on fire. She and her husband went to the back of their boutique to water down the wooden decks to protect them from damage.
Griffin’s Studio owner, Griffin Moore, got a text from another business owner with a picture of the building on fire. She rushed down to Sixth Street along with her parents to see what was happening. They stood by the Old Courthouse with some other business owners and bystanders.
“It was almost like a show,” Moore said. “Everyone was here watching.”
Eventually, Moore and her parents tried to move around to the back of the block to get a different view of the buildings.
“My business, all the way down to Young Hardware, which is right beside the Postell building, are all connected,” Moore said. “So, we knew if it got Young Hardware it would more than likely take out the whole block.”
Myra Place, co-owner of The Place: A Local Eatery Co., said that she and her husband were asleep when they were awakened around 10 p.m. by their grandson, who rang their doorbell and told them the street was on fire.
They rushed down to The Place, but were blocked by police who weren’t letting anyone close to Sixth Street. They eventually made their way over to the Old Courthouse and watched from there.
“We watched until 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock in the morning and then came back the next day,” said Place, as she fiddled with silverware on the counter at her store. “It smelled of smoke in all of our buildings.”
Around 2 in the morning in the pouring rain, Hopkinsville Fire Chief Freddie Montgomery Jr. brought cheeseburgers for everyone, since they had been working for hours, dragging hoses and protecting the other buildings. Futrell remembered standing between two buildings spraying water on the building and holding a cheeseburger that was so wet you could squeeze the water out of it.
Business owners on Sixth Street along with people from the community watched in fear as the firefighters worked to get the flames under control
Around 9:12 the next morning, firefighters had finally gotten the flames under control and mostly put out, however, the building itself was too far gone to be saved.
“A lot of the Sixth Street side was still there, but the roof was gone, it had completely collapsed and the walls on the back and the sides had collapsed,” Futrell said.
Montgomery said it was impressive in such a big fire that the only building to be seriously damaged was the Postell Building.
“As chief, when I pulled up I was preparing to lose the block because we do worst-case scenario,” the fire chief said.
The buildings on Sixth Street were built so close together they look like one long building. The only way to tell the businesses apart is by the different colored awnings, and in some cases, the paint color that defines that establishment.
The one-way street directly across from the Old Courthouse has seven parking spaces on the right side of the street and a small parking lot on the corner of Main and Sixth that fits about 10 cars.
Griffin’s Studio, directly opposite the parking lot, sells gifts, art and designs. Right next to the studio The Place restaurant fills the street with cars and people during the lunch and dinner hours.
The Hopkinsville Art Guild is a few businesses down, separated from The Place by an empty building and small inside staircase. Directly next to the art guild is Young Hardware, and across the street is a small boutique and construction on an old building that will eventually house a bar and café.
At the corner of Sixth Street and Virginia, across from the Grace Episcopal Church, sits a giant lot covered with dirt and rocks. In the center of the lot are hundreds of bricks stacked neatly onto pallets ready to be moved.
That’s all that’s left of the Peter Postrell Building.
Holly Boggess, assistant director of Community Development Services and director of Downtown Hopkinsville Renaissance, said they received a call from representatives from the state to see if the historic building could be salvaged after the fire. It was not possible.
After the fire, what remained of the building had to be torn down. The bricks that were still good were stacked into piles and left on the vacant lot.
The Peter Postell Building was one of Hopkinsville, Kentucky’s oldest buildings, having been built around 1883. It was named after its original owner, Peter Postell, who was a former slave turned wealthy business owner.
Postell was a slave from South Carolina who was brought to Kentucky and escaped slavery. He joined the Union Army during the Civil War where he served with the 16th U.S. Colored Infantry as a member of the brass band.
He returned to Kentucky after the war and opened a grocery store along with several other businesses in what became known as the Peter Postell Building. He became known as “The Richest Negro in the South,” according to the University of Kentucky Libraries’ Notable Kentucky African-Americans Database.
Postell had the building constructed as a four-bay, brick, two-story building that had room for different businesses on the first floor, and on the second floor, there were professional offices and an assembly room for groups to meet, William Turner, the Christian County historian said.
While on the historical registry as part of Historic Downtown Hopkinsville, none of the owners of the Postell building had ever attempted to restore it.
“I always hoped that the building would undergo restoration, so it could be saved,” said Boggess, in a phone interview.
One of the reasons it was never restored was that the right people didn’t come along with a purpose or an interest, Turner explained. Businesses that resided in the building never made enough money to keep up with the maintenance, so it fell into disrepair, he said.
“The owners, not to badmouth them, but they hadn’t maintained it,” said Alissa Keller, executive director of the Museum of Historic Hopkinsville-Christian-County.
Daniel Hicks, attorney at Hicks and Demps and co-owner of the Peter Postell Building, said that they have no plans to rebuild.
“If someone offers enough money, then we will sell it,” Hicks said of the lot. “Until then, we will just sit on it.”
Many people want to see something done with the lot.
“I would love to see possibly another retail space because the street is building up,” Moore said. “But at the same time, I think we need parking as well, we have a very small parking lot, it does not hold a lot of cars and it’s a little difficult to get in and out of sometimes.”
The lot remains covered in rubble and, though the businesses agree that it doesn’t affect their bottom line, it looks bad for the street.
“I don’t know that it will affect the business, but it is certainly an eye sore, and I feel like the city could jump in and buy that piece of property for a reasonable amount of money,” Place said.
The Postell Building was located in Christian County’s Magisterial District 1. Kenneth Bates, the magistrate for District 1, said a parking lot is needed, and if there was a commemorative plaque or marker talking about the building that once stood there, it would be appreciated.
The bricks salvaged after the fire were donated to the nearby Jeffers Bend Environmental Center by Ken Cayce, a real estate agent and co-owner of the property.
The bricks will be used to create a 120-foot brick wall around a patio at Jeffers Bend, explained Charles Turner, a volunteer who oversees Resource Conservation and Development. They are hoping for construction to start on the wall by the end of March.
“We are going to have a sign up there talking about the background of Peter and going on to say that it was donated by Daniel Hicks and his associates,” Turner said.
People in the community like the idea of the bricks being reused to build something new in Hopkinsville.
“What better way to use something old than to recycle it for such a purpose,” said Dawn Francis as she waited for her daughter to finish a Kiwanis meeting.
The museum director was happy the bricks could be incorporated back into the town. Keller hopes that the bricks will be used in a way that honors their heritage.
“It is always positive in my thinking from the preservations viewpoint to preserve the parts of a building that are salvageable,” William Turner said.
The building that lasted 133 years only to be destroyed by a lightning strike during a thunderstorm is now being reused to create something for people that will last just as long.