The Kirby House Restaurant in Abilene, more than 125 years old and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, burned Wednesday night and is considered a total loss.
“I think the fire started in back,” said Terry Tietjens, the Abilene resident who brought the house back to life in the mid-1980s. Flames were still licking at the Italianate building’s famous cupola Thursday morning as snow fell over Abilene.
“This is a real loss to our community and to the state, for sure,” he said.
In 1986, it had been chopped up into an apartment house. But Tietjens, who had restored the historic Seelye Mansion on North Buckeye Avenue in Abilene, also considered the Kirby House one of the town’s historic gems.
Built in 1885 by Abilene banker Thomas Kirby, the house was on the original site where Joseph McCoy built his home. McCoy made Abilene the first cowtown in Kansas and was the man who extended the Chisholm Trail from Wichita to Abilene.
In 1885, Kirby moved the McCoy house two blocks over and had it remodeled. And then, he built the Italianate frame house for his wife and daughter, Gertrude.
The current owners of the restaurant, Robert and Melodie Sprouse, were unable to be reached for comment. The restaurant had closed early in anticipation of a major snowstorm.
Glenda Purkis, director of Abilene’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said she learned of the fire shortly after 6 p.m. Wednesday. And on Thursday, it was nothing more than a shell.
“The whole north area of the house, where the kitchen was, is gone,” Purkis said. “You could see half the dining room was wide open and charred. They may have to watch that the rest of the structure doesn’t topple.”
The loss is devastating to Abilene, which is one of Kansas’ major tourism destinations, in part because of its cowtown heritage but also because it houses the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.
“The Kirby House completed our tourism package because people love to eat at a historic restaurant … ” Purkis said.
Not only was it a landmark, it was also known for great food.
Easily the most requested items were the country fried steak, the quiche served with coconut walnut bread and the Celebration Salad, said Vangie Henry, who owned the restaurant from November 1998 through December 2009. Under her management, the Kirby House Cookbook was published.
“There are a lot of people on Facebook that are saying it should be rebuilt,” Henry said. “But can you rebuild something as iconic as that? Will it be the same? The cost to rebuild something like that would be difficult. I’m not sure what the owners will do.”
Tietjens said he has hopes that something good will come from the fire.
“We’ll keep our chin up,” Tietjens said. “I’m now working with Old Abilene Town and bringing back its historic area.
“Maybe we can rebuild Joseph McCoy’s Drover’s Cottage someday and bring that back as a wonderful restaurant for Abilene and Kansas.”