How Tiedtke’s Burned Out, and Up

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As spectators watch, Tiedtke’s burns on May 7, 1975. Photo courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, obtained from http://images2.toledolibrary.org/.

A small article, heavy on pictures, about the downtown Tiedtke’s is long overdue.

Even though the downtown Tiedtke’s has been closed since 1972, it’s a store a lot of people remember. The Blade still mentions Tiedtke’s a lot, especially in connection with the big wheels of cheese they’d roll out every holiday season, and I enjoyed the Tiedtke Tales people submitted.

I was just going to post a bunch of pictures of the fire, but that seemed pretty pedestrian (don’t worry, I’ll do it anyway). I really started to wonder how Tiedtke’s, truly a Toledo landmark, ended up closing.

What fueled my interest, along with a general interest in the collapse of downtown Toledo in general as the linchpin of the city, was this post I did about the Paramount Theater, which – if it were still standing – would be a real asset to downtown Toledo in the 21st century.

Would you believe the Franklin Park Mall had a lot to do with Tiedtke’s downfall?

The first clue came from a post I wrote about the development of the mall in the late 1950s. I learned a fascinating “what-might-have-been” fact: Tiedtke’s had purchased two acres of the future mall property and intended to build a store there.

It was the idea of Marvin Kobacker, president of Tiedtke’s at the time, whose family owned Tiedtke’s for 36 years after Marvin’s father, Jerome, bought the store in 1925.

After the closing of the downtown Tiedtke’s was announced in 1972, Blade reporter Al Goldberg sought out Kobacker, who was sad about the closing but also felt it was inevitable, given the bankruptcy two weeks earlier of Federal’s, the Detroit-based chain that bought Tiedtke’s in 1961.

Tiedtke’s might have indeed lived on as the anchor of the Franklin Park Mall (can you imagine?), but Kobacker said that the family stepped in and adamantly opposed the idea. When Federal’s bought Tiedtke’s, they took possession of the land and sold it to the mall developers in 1960.

And with that, Tiedtke’s, Kobacker thought, lost its chance to become Toledo’s dominant retailer.

Quoting the story, there were other factors:

Mr. Kobacker believed that Tiedtke’s, perhaps more than any other major department store, had the ingredients to survive downtown. Yet, it is gone; the others remain.

The ingredient on which the former owner believes Federal’s failed to capitalize on was Tiedtke’s unique atmosphere which for some 75 years had given the store a flavor of its own, unlike other department stores.

It was a mistake, for example, Mr. Kobacker thinks, to eliminate the meat and flower departments, and to drastically reduce the grocery department: moves undertaken nearly three years ago.

In addition, Kobacker said that once Tiedtke’s was sold, it became just another chain store. Nothing was bought exclusively for the Toledo store anymore, and part of the store’s success was that Tiedtke’s catered to the needs of Toledo consumers directly. (The story is here, but you have to go to page B6 yourself, sorry.)

In its heyday, Tiedtke’s dominated Summit Street and the riverfront, though since the Fiberglas Tower is in this photo, this scene is probably after it closed. Photo courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, obtained from http://images2.toledolibrary.org/.

Kobacker, who died in 1993, was described in his obituary as a businessman, a philanthropist, active in civic and charitable groups and local Jewish organizations, and someone dedicated to the city and, especially, downtown. He and his wife Lenore were well known for their philanthropy. The Kobacker Center at the University of Toledo is named in his honor.

There’s no way to know if Tiedtke’s would have survived. Familiar Toledo names like Lasalle’s, The Lion Store, Lamson’s (and even the Michigan interlopers, Hudson’s and Jacobson’s) are all gone now. The closest thing to Tiedtke’s Toledo had, The Andersons, is in the process of closing their stores as I write this in 2017.

But it sure is fun to what-if.

And then, on the evening of Wednesday, May 6, 1975, there was the fire.

The view from Indiana Avenue of the Tiedtke’s fire. From the Ted J. Ligibel collection, courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, obtained from http://images2.toledolibrary.org/.

First crews on the scene said they could find no fire, but, according to Fire Chief Eulan Tucker, “then in a matter of minutes they had a real fire on their hands.”

It was the demolition firm that called the fire division, but it’s worth noting someone also pulled a box alarm at Adams and Summit, if anyone remembers those red and blue alarm boxes.

The Blade also had some fun with the fire:

– A Holland man said the charred remnant of an inventory card from the fire dropped into his yard

– A police crew reported an ember about a foot square landed at Hill Avenue and Parkside Blvd.

Meanwhile, a reporter went over to the nearby Gayety Burlesque Theater at 322 Summit to see how stripper Harlin Blaze was doing. Not good: the theater had to end its show early and evacuate.

The fire was big, and the crowd was unruly, according to The Blade.

Police attempted to barricade some intersections with their cruisers, but motorists intent on getting as close to the fire as possible drove around cruisers over curbs…

Police attempted to clear the parking lot behind Tiedtke’s of spectators, many of whom stood staring at the blaze, seemingly oblivious to police commands.

Finally, a police cruiser and a fire division rescue truck, with sirens blaring, herded spectators back to the north end of the lot.

This apparently angered many of the spectators who shouted at policemen and started hurling rocks at firemen fighting the blaze from Water Street.

Spectators get as close as they can to the Tiedtke’s fire, May 7, 1975. Courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, obtained from http://images2.toledolibrary.org/.
The Tiedtke’s fire, May 7, 1975. From the Ted J. Ligibel collection, courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, obtained from http://images2.toledolibrary.org/.
The Tiedtke’s fire, May 7, 1975. From the Ted J. Ligibel collection, courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, obtained from http://images2.toledolibrary.org/.
The Tiedtke’s fire, May 7, 1975. From the Ted J. Ligibel collection, courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, obtained from http://images2.toledolibrary.org/.
An aerial shot of the Tiedtke’s fire, May 7, 1975. Courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, obtained from http://images2.toledolibrary.org/.
The aftermath of the Tiedtke’s fire, May 7, 1975. Courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, obtained from http://images2.toledolibrary.org/.

There was a loss involved, since much of the salvageable material was destroyed in the fire (including bricks, which crack when they get hot). Any clues to the fire’s origin, however, were lost in the ferocity of the fire.

As a completely random aside, May 7, 1975 stands out for another reason in Toledo history. The Tiedtke’s fire was on the same night of “The Miracle on Main Street.” The Toledo Goaldiggers won the International Hockey League’s Turner Cup, beating the Saginaw Gears 6-5 in Saginaw.

Finally, as a rule I don’t use other people’s photos. But I can certainly link to the best one.

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