At five in the morning of Wednesday, September 12, 1973, an explosion leveled the Arch Café at 1737 Main Street in downtown Springfield. In the newspaper photo published the next day, it looks like the walls blew out and the roof lifted, broke, and then resettled onto what had just become a pile of rubble. No one was injured in the blast, but the building, which the owners estimated to be worth $90,000, was totally destroyed.
Sixty windows were blown out in the side of the Hotel Charles right next to the Café. Changes in the transportation patterns from rail to automobiles had brought the once proud Hotel to near financial collapse, but it was a handy tryst place for subcultural denizens. There was additional damage to the Army&Navy store on the ground floor of the Hotel and to the Friendly Tavern across the street.
The Arch Café was named after the immense granite railroad arch that flanked the café’s south side and carried the Penn Central railroad over Main Street. The Arch Cafe was so well known to authorities that it was described in the Springfield Union as “long acknowledged as a gathering place for homosexuals in the Connecticut Valley and beyond.” Men had previously been arrested at the café on “morals” charges, and the establishment was regularly scrutinized by the Health and Liquor Licensing Boards. Smith College professor Newton Arvin, who lived in nearby Northampton, described the Arch in his diaries as a place he cruised for casual sex in the late 1950s and early 60s. (See the previous blogpost the Scarlet Professor .)
The incident was investigated by local, state, and federal authorities. The Arch Café had been operated for seventeen years by brothers Louis and Andrew Lake and in-law Constantine Kyros. The Lake brothers told investigators that the establishment had been plagued in recent weeks by obscene, threatening telephone calls. The reason Andrew Lake gave for not previously reporting these calls to the police was that “after a while you get used to this kind of thing.” The owner of the neighboring Army&Navy store told investigators his business had also received numerous obscene phone calls, starting two weeks before the explosion. Follow-up by police revealed that other bars with homosexual crowds had not been receiving such calls during this period.
When enough debris was cleared away for the fire marshals to get a good look at the damage, gas leaks or an oil tank combustion were eliminated as possible sources for the explosion. A kerosene soaked rag that had not ignited was found on the scene. The rag, along with other forensic evidence, was sent to the state’s lab for analysis.
Pursuing the idea that the Café might have been deliberately targeted because of its homosexual clientele, a Springfield Union reporter James Shanks interviewed Robert Dow of the Homophile Union of Boston. Dow said that his group was “quite concerned” about the Arch explosion. He added, “A number of churches sympathetic to homosexuals and gay churches in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York have been destroyed or damaged by fire bombings. The number of crank calls against gays increased alarmingly in the last month.”
The idea of targeting “homosexuals” was not at all unlikely. Such an incident had been reported in the local and Boston newspapers just a few months previous to the Arch Café explosion. A page three article in the June 26 Springfield Union printed parts of an Associated Press story from New Orleans about an arson fire at a “gay” bar in which twenty-nine people burned to death, with another sixteen injured as they jumped from upper floor windows and a fire escape.
Almost two weeks after the blast the return of findings from the state laboratory helped the fire marshals determine that the Arch Café destruction was caused by a “malicious explosion” deliberately set using a homemade black powder bomb.
With the help of federal agents, the investigation turned to trying to trace the source of the powder, a controlled substance. Months passed with no announced results, but sporadic newspaper coverage about arson in the area linked the Arch bombing to a group of other open cases of fire bombing in the Greater Springfield area.
In a May 1974 special feature on arson for profit in the Springfield Republican, Lt. Edward Smith, the State Fire Marshal, outlined the growing arson problem and described new patterns being discerned across the state as well as in Springfield. Since 1960, arson cases had tripled in the state. In Hampden County, one in eight deliberately set fires might be commissioned by property owners in order to profit from over-insurance. A representative of the insurance industry stated that they felt strongly that the syndicate or mafia was involved in this in Springfield. Neither the police nor the fire marshals would comment on this allegation except, in my interpretation of the article, to imply that arson arrests couldn’t be made without evidence against specific people and that there were an increasing number of arsons that no one was willing to talk about.
Early in the Arch Café investigation, it had been determined that the property was under-insured, since the owners were recouping only a fraction of its value. This made this case unlikely to be an example of insurance arson. Police discovered, however, that the Arch Café operators also owned the Viking Lounge, which had been the object of several bomb scares in recent months. These bomb threats had not been received at the Café. Although “no one was talking,” investigators brought the attention of journalists to a group of other unsolved fire bombings which had occurred in 1973 in the Greater Springfield area. In addition to the Arch Café, these included two trucking firms, a tenement, a pharmacy, a car, and two restaurants. The FBI was investigating some of these for a Boston connection.
No one was ever identified as responsible for setting the bomb, nor was the motive for it made clear. I have heard enough rumors of mafia control of gay bars and protection rackets in other cities to find that to be a plausible theory about what was happening in Springfield at the time. It is, of course, only speculation.
I never visited the Arch before its demise, and couldn’t find a photo of it. Google maps street view takes one along Main Street and under the railroad arch. The Arch Café would have been on the immediate right as one emerges from the arch, with the Peter Pan Bus depot, then as now, across the street. The large vacant lot, with some concrete being poured in Nov. 2015, was the site of the 400-room Hotel Charles, which had been next door to the Arch Café. The hotel was demolished after a fire in 1988.
__Thank you Jan Whitaker for turning me on to GenealogyBank.
__”Arch Blast Probed.” Springfield Union. Sep. 13, 1973. Springfield, Massachusetts.
__Shanks, James M. “Officials to Raise Arch Roof.” Springfield Union. Sep. 14, 1973.
__MacConnell, Art, photographer. “No Sale.” Springfield Union. Sep. 15, 1973.
__”Survivor Says Arsonist Torched ‘Gay’ Bar.” Springfield Union. Jun. 26, 1973.
__”Bars Block Escape of 29 Fire Victims.” Boston Herald. Jun. 26, 1973. Boston, Massachusetts.
__”Arson Confirmed in Arch Café Fire.” Springfield Union. Sep.25, 1973.
__”Agents Seek Source For Bomb Powder.” Springfield Union. Oct. 3, 1973.
__”Firebombing Try Probed by Police.” Springfield Union. Apr. 4, 1974.
__Andreoni, Phyllis. “Insurance Sighting In On Arson for Profit.” Springfield Republican. May 19, 1974.
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