Blazes Strike 3 Historic Churches
Fire damage inside the 1884 Metropolitan Baptist Church in Harlem.
Metropolitan Baptist Church
New Baptist Temple in Brooklyn’s Boerun Hill
New Baptist Temple
Conservancy staff inspected two historic churches damaged in early July fires to witness the early stages of the clean-up and to assess the damage. Both the 1884 Metropolitan Baptist Church in Harlem and the 1885 New Baptist Temple in Brooklyn’s Boerun Hill are past recipients of Conservancy Sacred Sites grants.
A third fire this week damaged Love Gospel Assembly on the Grand Concourse, a 1921 former synagogue highlighted in our recent Bronx synagogue survey (click here to read story). The Conservancy has reached out to the church with technical assistance.
These tragic incidents highlight the importance of fire alarm and suppression systems in these irreplaceable buildings.
The Conservancy ‘s handbook “Fire Prevention for Religious Properties,” is available here. An issue of Common Bond devoted to fire recovery has been sent to the three institutions and can be found here.
The first fire occurred in the rector’s office of the Metropolitan Baptist Church on the corner of W.128th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. The second, just one day later, consumed the organ loft of the New Baptist Temple.
At Metropolitan Baptist, the fire destroyed the rector’s office and damaged a beautiful semi-circular bay window facing 128th Street. There was extensive water and smoke damage to administrative offices above and below the room where the fire started, as well as to the main stair and entry corridor. Fortunately, the lofty sanctuary was spared.
Conservancy staff met at the scene with preservation consultant Mary Kay Judy and discussed the extent of the damage as well as the condition of the church’s roof and gutters, which were in bad repair prior to the fire, and are working closely with Mary Kay and the church to finalize a grant proposal to address roof drainage issues as well as fire recovery.
The blaze at the Baptist Temple started in one of the two organ lofts within the principal sanctuary. Fire consumed everything within the organ loft and thick, black smoke poured into the sanctuary soiling the vaulted ceiling and other surfaces. Firemen had to break several historic stained glass windows in order to vent the smoke. Here too there was smoke and water damage to spaces above and below the source of the fire. The organ, which was a valuable and rare instrument, was a total loss. Long-time Baptist Temple organist, congregant, and preservation advocate Keith Bigger contacted the Conservancy the day of the fire, and staff have continued to provide technical assistance, helping to vet contractor pricing for repairs.
Fortunately, in all three cases, no one was seriously injured. Also fortunate was the fact that professional environmental clean-up companies arrived quickly to dehumidify, and mitigate damage to the affected portions of the buildings. Quick action by a licensed clean-up company is crucial in order to save plaster, wood, furniture and prevent the growth of mold and mildew.
Built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with old wiring and mechanical systems, and competing deferred maintenance needs, historic religious properties can be particularly vulnerable. The fires occurred during a record-setting heat-wave that affected the entire Metro area. Temperatures in the upper nineties can overload vintage electrical systems due to air conditioning loads. The fires are a reminder of this vulnerability.
The Conservancy is currently providing grant and loan funding for the installation of a fire alarm and sprinkler system at the 1697 Flushing Meeting House in Queens, a welcome focus on fire prevention—and the conservation of the Meeting’s new cedar shingle roof—rather than disaster recovery.