Tag Archives: Fires

Aftermath of a Fire in the Lower East Side

Chartered in 1875, the Manhattan Railway Company operated elevated train lines in Manhattan and the Bronx. In 1879, it leased elevated lines running along Second, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Avenues from the New York Elevated Railway Company and the Metropolitan Elevated Railway; and in 1891, also leased lines from the Suburban Rapid Transit Company.  Eventually, all three companies were absorbed by the  Manhattan Railway.  During the course of its operations the Manhattan Railway Company photographed the construction of the 74th Street Power Station and numerous substations, capital improvements, and activities and events that affected train service.

Below are images of one such event documented by the company 110 years ago.

Manhattan Railway Company. Houston & Allen St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.155D

Manhattan Railway Company. Houston & Allen St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.155D

In the early morning hours of January 12, 1903, a fire broke out at Houston and Allen Streets, in the basement of a building owned by the leather manufacturer Fayerweather & Ladew.

Manhattan Railway Company. Houston & Allen St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.155A

Manhattan Railway Company. Houston & Allen St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.155A

Firefighters remained on the scene for 13 hours and 45 minutes. In addition to the Fayerweather & Ladew buildings on 159-165 East Houston Street and 207-211 Allen Street, adjacent buildings on Houston, Allen, and Eldridge Streets also sustained damage. These pictures capture the loss and recovery effort in eery detail.

Manhattan Railway Company. Houston & Allen St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.154A

Manhattan Railway Company. Houston & Allen St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.154A

Manhattan Railway Company. Houston & Allen St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.154D

Manhattan Railway Company. Houston & Allen St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.154D

Manhattan Railway Company. Allen & Houston St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.157A

Manhattan Railway Company. Allen & Houston St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.157A

Manhattan Railway Company. Allen & Houston St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.157D

Manhattan Railway Company. Allen & Houston St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.157D

These images are among 1,856 photographs in the  Museum of the City of New York’s Manhattan Railway Company collection, all of which are on the Museum’s Collections Portal. For more winter firefighting images, be sure to check out Susannah Broyles’s excellent post about the Equitable Building fire.

The Great Crystal Palace Fire of 1858

The New York Crystal Palace was a cast-iron and steel structure completed in 1853  on the site of current day Bryant Park, located between 42nd and 40th streets to the north and south, the Croton Distributing Reservoir (current location of the Stephen A. Schwarzman  Building of the New York Public Library) to the east, and Sixth Avenue to the west.  The structure, designed by architects Georg J. B. Carstensen and Charles Gildermeister in the shape of a Greek cross, featured a dome at its center and was reputed to be fireproof.

Print issued by John Bachmann. Birds Eye View of the New York Crystal Palace and Environs. John Bachmann, 1853. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.2387

Program for the Inauguration of the Crystal Palace, 1853, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.3357.

The Crystal Palace was built to house what is often thought of as the first United States world’s fair — known as the “Exhibition of Industry of All Nations” —  which opened to the public  on July 14, 1853.  The building and the exhibition were inspired by similar events held in London in 1851 and Dublin in 1852, featuring agricultural products and industrial innovations.  Elisha Otis first obtained widespread attention for his new invention, the elevator, at the fair in 1854.   The fair also celebrated the fine arts, showcasing a collection of sculpture and paintings.   While the fair included exhibitors from around the world, those from the United States were most numerous.

Initially, the fair was very popular and no visit to New York could be complete without a visit to the Crystal Palace.  Attendees purchased souvenirs that included canes, clothing, ash trays, medals, spoons, thimbles, and objects such as the plaque pictured below.

Souvenir plaque of the Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations, New York, 1853-1854, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 43.118.14.

However, by the latter part of its first year, the Crystal Palace exposition began to suffer from declining attendance.   Theodore Sedgwick, the first president of the Crystal Palace Association, resigned and was replaced with the grand entertainer Phineas T. Barnum.  When the exhibition finally closed on November 1, 1854, despite the change in leadership and paid attendance exceeding 0ne million, the sponsors of the fair were left with $300,000 in debt.  When the Crystal Palace reopened, it was leased as a space for special events and continued to host the Fair of the American Institute, previously held at Niblo’s Garden, for the next few years.

Judge’s ticket during the 29th Annual Fair of the American Institute at the Crystal Palace, 1857, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 36.409.58.

Attendance to events at the Crystal Palace continued to dwindle and by 1856, according to The New York Times, it was considered a “piece of dead property.”  Perhaps the low attendance was considered a blessing when, on October 5, 1858, the Crystal Palace caught fire while hosting the American Institute Fair.  A letter in the Museum’s collection from Franklin Harvey Biglow to his sister Elizabeth Biglow describes being present at the Crystal Palace on the day of the fire, and how the entire structure collapsed in “not more than ten minutes from the time the alarm was given.”   Biglow was likely an exhibitor at the 30th Annual American Institute Fair, as suggested in his statement in the letter: “Very little of the immense value in goods & merchandise was saved.  My cases and contents went with the rest, my actual loss will not vary much from $900 dollars”–the equivalent of $23,050 in 2012.  Click here to view the full letter.  The total losses from the fire were estimated at approximately $500,000 (the equivalent of $12,802,150 today ), including the value of the building, exhibits, and statuary still installed from the time of the “Exhibition of Industry of All Nations.”  Nearly 2,000 people were inside when the fire broke out, but no one was injured.  The Museum also holds a chunk of glass salvaged from the burnt structure (accession number 36.407) in the collection.

Photographer unknown. Crystal Palace Interior, ca. 1855. Photo Archives. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.5044.

Click here to view more images of the Crystal Palace from the Museum’s collection.

Mott Haven Historic District

The neighborhood of Mott Haven is located in the South Bronx, and is situated on a portion of land historically referred to as Morrisania, named after the powerful Morris family who held possession of it for centuries.    Richard and Lewis Morris, merchants from Barbados, purchased the land from Jonas Bronck in 1670.  Alexander Avenue, which extends through the heart of the Mott Haven Historic District, is reputed to have been named after Alexander Bathgate, the overseer of the Morris manor.

J. L. Mott Ironworks, 1897. in the Bills Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 97.199.1

In 1828, Jordan L. Mott, an inventor and industrialist, purchased land from the Morris family to establish a foundry for his ironworks on the Harlem River at 134th Street.   By the 1840s he’d purchased a second tract of land with the idea of building the village of Mott Haven.  By 1850, Mott had drawn up plans for the lower part of the Mott Haven Canal, which, once completed, allowed canal boats to travel as far north as 138th Street.

Map of Mott Haven Canal Docks and other Property of W. E. Rider and T. H. Conkling, ca. 1880, In the Map Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.3142A.

Mott was viewed with a certain amount of resentment, as his ironworks and canal were the forerunners of a wave of unwelcome industrialization through what had previously been pastoral countryside.   If you look along the canal in the map above, you’ll see the Mott Ironworks located where the canal meets the Harlem River, and several other industrial buildings as you move up the canal.  The neighborhood that forms the Mott Haven Historic District is a residential pocket in the greater industrial neighborhood of Mott Haven, contributing to it’s uniqueness.

Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985) and Frank Bauman, for LOOK Magazine. Changing New York: A building and a firehouse being demolished, 1957. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.7552-57.175

The Mott Haven Historic District is roughly situated along Alexander Avenue, bounded by East 137th Street to the south, and East 141st Street to the north.  This stretch has been known throughout its history both as “The Irish Fifth Avenue” and “Politician’s Row.” The Mott Haven Historical District was the first area in the Bronx to receive the designation from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, in 1969, shortly following the first historic district designation in 1965 of Brooklyn Heights.   Following the construction of major highways in the South Bronx in the 1950s, primarily the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the displacement of vast swathes of residents led to poverty and decay in the South Bronx.  Images such at the one above, picturing demolition along the Harlem River at the Park Avenue Bridge (just southwest of the Mott Haven Historic District), became commonplace by the 1960s.

Wurts Brothers. East 137th Street and Alexander Avenue. St. Jerome’s Roman Catholic Church, interior, ca. 1905. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.10472.

Scenes such as the one  captured by Rothstein and Bauman illustrate the timeliness of the historic district designation for Mott Haven.  Among some of the architectural landmarks in the Mott Haven Historic District is St. Jerome’s Roman Catholic Church, at the corner of Alexander Avenue and 138th Street, pictured to the right.   The district also boasts several examples of historic residential architecture from the early 1860s – 1920s, with interiors custom designed for their owners, and important civic structures, including: the Tercera Iglesia Bautista (Third Baptist Church) and its parsonage; the Mott Haven Branch of the Public Library, which was the first public library in the Bronx, and constructed with funds from Andrew Carnegie’s grant; and the 40th Precinct Police Station.  While the historical designation of Mott Haven was a step in the right direction for preserving the unique architectural landscape of the South Bronx, no other neighborhoods received the designation until Longwood did, in 1980.

Susan Lorkid Katz. SKIPPED, 1977. Museum of the City of New York. 84.203.101

In the decade in between,  decay continued to spread through the borough, and numerous building fires sprung up on a daily basis, leading to the coining of the phrase, “The Bronx is burning,” attributed to Howard Cosell as he commented on a fire in the neighborhood surrounding the stadium during a New York Yankees game.  The events of the 1970s brought national attention to the South Bronx, including the notice of President Jimmy Carter, and by the early 1980s parts of the borough were beginning to experience an urban renewal.  In addition to Longwood, three other neighborhoods received the historic designation in the 1980s, and four in the 1990s.

Click here to view more images of Mott Haven from the collection, including structures which no longer exist, such as the 138th Street Grand Central Railroad Station and the 3rd Avenue “L”.

During the month of May, we’ll be posting more entries on historic preservation in the city. The Museum of the City of New York is competing for a $250,000 grant from Partners in Preservation, a joint program sponsored by American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The winner is determined by popular vote, and individuals may vote once a day through May 21st. Please help us by going to http://www.helpmcny.com/ and voting today.

100 Years Ago – The Equitable Building Fire

January 9th, 1912, just after 5 A.M. The wind is howling at nearly 40 miles per hour–with gusts of up to 68 miles per hour–making the already below freezing temperatures even colder. Philip O’Brien, the timekeeper of the swanky Cafe Savarin on the first floor of the Equitable Life Assurance Building, starts his day by lighting the gas in his small office and distractedly throws the  still-lit match into the garbage. By 5:18  A.M. the office is engulfed in flames. The flames spread to the elevators and dumbwaiter systems and within minutes the entire  Equitable Building is on fire.

The Equitable Building opened in 1870  at 120 Broadway and was considered the first skyscraper at an impressive seven stories and with the  first public elevators in the city. It was the home of  some of the most well established banking and law offices of the Gilded Age, along with the Cafe Savarin and the exclusive Lawyer’s Club.  The basement housed safes and vaults filled with several billions (yes, billions in 1870) of securities, stocks, and bonds. In short, this was the epicenter of most of the wealth of the Financial District.

At 5:34 A.M the first fire alarm was rung at the corner of Pine and Nassau Streets and within minutes the first firefighters arrived. Within half an hour the majority of Manhattan’s firefighters were at the scene, containing the fires within the building and spraying the exterior from neighboring buildings.  And yet the fire burned on.  For the first time in the history of the fire department, Brooklyn fire companies were called in to help with a Manhattan fire. The Brooklyn Bridge was even closed to traffic to allow the fire engines to get to the Equitable Building as quickly as possible.

Aftermath of the Equitable Building Fire. 1912. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.9172.

The first casualties of the fire occurred at 6 A.M.,  just as reinforcements were arriving.  Three employees of Cafe Savarin were trapped on the roof. Fire fighters tried to rescue them, but the ladders were three stories too short and by the time the fire fighters went up to a neighboring building, the roof had begun to collapse.  In desperation, the trapped men jumped to their deaths onto Cedar Street.

At the same time nearly thirty blocks uptown, William Giblin, the president of the Mercantile Deposit Company–whose offices were in the building–was informed of the fire.  He dashed down to the Financial District and, with a watchman, went to retrieve important documents from his company’s offices in the burning building. They were unaware the outer doors of the building locked behind them. While they were  searching for his papers in a massive vault, a heavy safe fell to the ground floor spreading the fire even more completely. Various rescue missions tried  fruitlessly to  save them, but instead resulted in the death of respected Fire Battalion Chief William Walsh. Nearly two hours later Giblin and the watchman were freed only after fire fighters used hacksaws to get through the bars of the basement windows.  The post card below shows the aftermath.

Rescue of Wm. Giblin, Pres. Mercantile Deposit Co., Equitable Life Building fire Jan. 9th, 1912. 1912. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.652.

As the morning wore on, the temperatures dropped even more and the wind speeds picked up causing the water to freeze where it was sprayed. Soon Broadway was coated with layers of ice, hoses were frozen solid, and  fire apparatuses were jammed – but the firemen had it the worst. According to the  New York Times, “At 9 o’clock Fire Chief Kenlon, who worked like a Trojan at this – his first great fire – was actually weighted down with icicles.  They had formed on his eyebrows and hung from his mustache like dumbbells.  From his shoulders and arms the men on the lines had to chop away the coat of ice.  He looked like a man from another world.  It was so with all the firemen whose work took them into the zone of the shifting spray, and it was soon found necessary to open relief stations in the entrances to the various office buildings which faced the building that was in flames.  Here police and men detailed from the Fire Department bent over the half frozen men, pressing their stiff gloves onto the radiators, cutting, scraping, and chopping the ice from their helmets and hair and shoulders.”

Equitable Building Fire. 1912. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.14289.

Firefighting equipment covered in ice at the Equitable Building fire. 1912. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.34.656.

The fire was contained at 9:30 A.M. and by that time the Equitable Building was in ruins. Six people had lost their lives, including the Battalion Fire Chief William Walsh and two night watchmen who had been trapped inside the building.

This disaster, along with the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, made it clear that new laws were needed to maintain safety in a rapidly changing cityscape.

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.).1912. Aftermath of the Equitable Fire. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.9141.

Firemen at the Equitable Building fire. 1912. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.604.

Irving Underhill (d. 1960). Equitable Fire Ruins, B'way & Cedar. 1912. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.28.632.

Aftermath of the Equitable Fire. 1912. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.9507.

Aftermath of the Equitable Fire. 1912. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.9506.

For more information, the official report of the fire is digitized on Google Books.