Burning of the Fifth Avenue Theatre.
The beautiful Fifth Avenue Theatre, in New York city, situated on the block between Twenty-eighth and Twenty-ninth streets, on Broadway, was completely gutted by fire early on the morning of Saturday last, little but the walls remaining. The fire was discovered by the watchman shortly after midnight in a room under the stage. The cause is unknown, but is supposed to have been either defective electric light wires or a lighted cigarette. The watchman quickly notified a policeman, who turned in an alarm. Two engines responded, and, although at first the only evidence of the fire was smoke coming from the Twenty-eighth street entrance, the gravity of the situation was recognized, and second and third alarms were quickly rung in.
Shortly after, while the firemen were leading in lines of hose through the lobby, and trying to reach the seat of the fire, there came a sudden back draught and choking clouds of smoke burst out into the lobby, driving firemen and reporters into the street. Instantly the flames filled the whole interior, and the large skylight over the stage, opening, as designed, by the burning away of the ropes securing it, the flames mounted high above the roof.
The wind was blowing stiffly from the northwest, and showers of sparks and sheets of flame were whirled across Broadway, while the flames were bursting from the windows on Twenty-eighth street, threatening the opposite houses. The “ two nines ” alarm was rung in for more assistance, and, seeing that the theatre could not be saved, Chief Bonner disposed his forces so as to best protect the surrounding property.
The light of the fire, which could be seen for miles around, bad by this time drawn immense crowds to the spot, and a large, extra force of police was called out to keep the fire lines, Broadway being cleared from Twenty-seventh to Thirtieth streets. The guests in the Sturtevant House were alarmed and vacated their rooms, and the roof of the hotel finally took fire. Fire was also found to have spread to Herrmann’s Theatre, adjoining the Fifth Avenue Theatre, on Broadway, through a window in the fire wall, carelessly left open. This blaze was also extinguished, however, after the firemen had cut a hole ten feet in diameter in the side wall, through which to run a line of hose. Meanwhile the inside of the Fifth Avenue simply burned out, the solid walls standing unharmed, and preventing any further spread of the fire, so that the damage to the stores in the block facing on Broadway was practically limited to that by smoke and water. The fire was virtually extinguished by daylight. Greatly exaggerated accounts regarding the losses were at first circulated, but it is now estimated that, including the damage to the Sturtevant House, Herrmann’s Theatre and the shops, they will not exceed $250,000.
Strange to say the accidents to firemen reported were few and slight, though two men, when the roof of the theatre fell in, were compelled by the dense smoke and the shower of sparks to descend from the roof of Herrmann’s Theatre by sliding down a line of hose to the street.
The Fifth Avenue Theatre was built in 1873. It had a frontage of sixty feet on Twenty-eighth street, was sixty-five feet in width in the rear and 160 feet deep. It was built with division walls of brick, fitted with iron doors and shutters and provided with exit, by which it was calculated the house could be emptied in two minutes.
The interior was entirely remodeled last summer by Harry Miner, the present lessee. It is understood that it will be rebuilt without delay. Our illustrations, for which we are indebted to The New York Herald, will give a clear idea of the situation of the theatre and of the appearance of parts of the ruins.
The list of theatres burned since 1821 in New York city is as follows :
New York Herald, January 8 : Chief Bonner, of the Fire Department, sent to the Board of Fire Commissioners yesterday his report on the disastrous Fifth Avenue Theatre fire, which took place on the night of January 2. He maintains that the forces of the fire department did all that it was possible to do in the circumstances, and contends that the department is entitled to great credit for keeping the fire from spreading any further than it did. He says the fire had gained such headway in the cellar under the Fifth Avenue Theatre before the arrival of the department forces that no entrance could he effected, and consequently the flames made rapid progress inside the theatre and soon broke through the roof. Then the gale seized the flames and threatened the complete destruction of the adjoining property. Chief Bonner says the situation of the theatre and the peculiar construction of the block made it a very bad place for a fire, and the fire underwriters were so well aware of it that they took it into account in working up insurance policies. He describes how the fire gained a footing in the Sturtevant House, and adds :
“ Permit me to say, in reply to the adverse criticisms of a small portion of the press as to the efficiency of the department at this fire, that it would be well to remember that at th e time the fire broke out in the mansard roof of the Sturtevan t House the active force at the theatre fire was contending with fires which had extended to Herrmann’s Theatre, to the roofs and to the fourth and fifth floors of the office buildings on Broadway and to the Gilsey mansion on Twenty-eighth street, and it had every indication of extending still further. These positions could not be left uncovered during the fiercest period of the fire, but the force was taken from other points just as soon as circumstances would permit, and upon the arrival of additional companies they were immediately assigned to this point.’’
The fire commissioners have also received letters from Professor Herrmann and Andrew Gilsey, representing the heirs of the Gilsey estate, in which the conduct of Chief Bonner and his men is commended in the highest terms.