The Hotel Roosevelt fire, on December 29, 1963, was the worst fire Jacksonville, Florida had seen since the Great Fire of 1901, and it contributed to the worst one-day death toll in the city's history. Twenty-two people died, mostly from carbon monoxide poisoning.
The Hotel Roosevelt was, at the time, one of only two luxury hotels in the city's downtown, with many restaurants and businesses located on its ground floor, including a ballroom and a barber shop. At the year's end, the Hotel Roosevelt hosted hundreds of travelers who came to attend the Gator Bowl.
The fire was said to be started after a cigarette was left unattended in the ground-floor ballroom after a Gator Bowl celebration, but was in reality started in the ballroom's ceiling. The old ceiling, which was deemed a fire hazard, was not removed when the new ceiling was installed, providing kindling for the fire, which started from faulty wires.
The first calls to the Jacksonville Fire Department were made at 7:30 a.m. Smoke was traveling throughout the 13-story building, and hotel visitors climbed out of the smoky building with the help of other patrons and bedsheets tied together. Mayor W. Haydon Burns immediately called for assistance from the U.S. Navy, and eight helicopters were flown to downtown from Cecil Field and NAS Jacksonville. The airmen helped the patrons out of the building, and transported them to a nearby parking lot, where ambulances were already waiting.
The fire was extinguished by 9:30 a.m., and it was estimated that nearly 475 people were saved from the burning building. After a day of recovering the dead, firefighters found 21 residents dead in their beds from smoke inhalation. In addition, assistant chief J.R. Romedy collapsed of a heart attack during the initial rescue efforts, and died at the scene.
Property damage to the Hotel Roosevelt was immense, and the hotel was closed in 1964, with most of the hotel's businesses and staff relocating to the equally upscale Hotel George Washington. After much renovation, the building was re-opened as a retirement home, the Jacksonville Regency House, which closed in 1989.
The former Hotel Roosevelt, located on Adams Street in downtown, is still standing. The building was placed in the National Register of Historic Places in February 1991. Memorials are still held to remember those who died in the fire (the most recent gathering occurred in December 2003 for the 40th anniversary of the blaze).
The building was renovated in recent years and is now known as The Carling, an upscale apartment residence.
Additional information about this historic hotel is available on the Jacksonville Historical Society website:
When this thirteen-story hotel building opened on September 1, 1926, it was known as the Carling Hotel. It was owned by the Dinkler Hotel Co. of Atlanta and was named after Carling L. Dinkler who, at age 31, was vice president of the hotel chain and claimed to be the youngest hotel executive in the U.S. Newspaper articles in 1926 described the hotel as having "300 rooms with bath, running ice water, fans and the latest equipment in the rooms." "The three lower stories are faced with Indiana limestone above which is a shaft of red brick. The upper stories are trimmed with terra-cotta, and surmounted by a balustrade with limestone coping. The building is of completely fire proof construction." Unlike the other tall hotel buildings in Jacksonville at this time, the Carling was built in the middle of the block instead of on a corner, resulting in a rather expansive but bland facade. In 1936 the hotel's name was changed to the Roosevelt. On the night of December 29, 1963, a $350,000 fire killed twenty-two people in the hotel, which was filled with visitors for the Gator Bowl game on the following day. The next year the hotel closed. In later years it reopened as Jacksonville Regency House, a retirement community apartment building, and in recent years it has been converted to luxury apartments.