Bureau of Surveys

123 William Street, New York, N. Y.

Reports on Recent Fires

New York, May 1, 1920.


Bijou Button Co., 43-47 West 16th St., Manhattan.

This concern occupies the 4th floor of a 12 story and basement fireproof building and are pyroxylin plastic button makers. An explosion occurred on the premises April 1, 1920, apparently due to delay in applying flame after gas was turned on in a gas heated boiler. No fire occurred and the pyroxylin plastic material was fortunately not involved, as considerable of this material was handled in close proximity to the boiler which our records have shown for some time to have been unsafe. The business is apparently being conducted without any permit from the Fire Department. The New York Hospital adjoins it and a church and college are located across the street.

About 18 months ago there was a fire in this building originating on the premises of Goldberg & Miller, 10th floor, manufacturing pyroxylin buttons, which did considerable damage.

Levy-Stern Button Co., Inc., 17 East 12th St., Manhattan.

This concern occupies the first floor of a four story and basement ordinary brick building and are jobbers and wholesalers of buttons and buckles composed of pyroxylin plastic. They carry a large stock in paper boxes on wooden shelves. On March 20, 1920, a fire originated from unexplained cause on the first floor in the premises of Levy-Stern Button Co., among their stock of pyroxylin plastic buttons and buckles. No one was in the building at the time. The fire occurred at 3:19 P. M. Saturday afternoon. The fire was first evidenced by a tongue of flame shooting fully across the 60 ft. street due to the pressure of gas generated by the rapidly burning pyroxylin plastic. The entire front portion of the first floor was blown into the street. The flames extended up the front of this and the adjoining building on the east. After some delay, owing to the large torch of flame extending across the street, the fire was promptly extinguished after the stock of pyroxylin where it started had been plactically burned out. Considerable damage was done on the floor immediately above and some damage on the third floor. The building was not equipped with automatic sprinklers and the pyroxylin burned rapidly, developing considerable pressure and consuming all material of that nature on the premises.

Superior Ivory Novelty Co., 186-86 West Houston St. and 1-9 Bedford St., Manhattan.

This concern occupies the second floor of 3-5 Bedford St., a four story and basement ordinary brick building, as a pyroxylin plastic novelty factory. There were about 600 pounds of pyroxylin plastic and scrap carelessly handled. A fire occurred April 12, 1920, due to friction of a tool while threading ferrules made of pyroxylin plastic. Futile efforts were made to extinguish the fire which spread rapidly, extending throughout the building. The heat was so intense that the firemen were unable to enter the building and were obliged to work from the outside until the pyroxylin on the second floor had practically burned itself out. Building was not equipped with automatic sprinklers.

FAILURE OF AUTOMATIC HOSE REEL. American Exchange Bank, 126-130 Broadway, Manhattan.

A fire occurred January 19, 1920, in the building employees’ locker room in the attic space of this sixteen story fireproof office building. This space communicated to the room containing gravity tank for standpipe system. The fire is supposed to have been caused by a careless smoker. Wooden lockers furnished considerable fuel for the fire which was confined to the locker room.

Employees in the building stretched lines of hose from the 14th and 15th floors to fight the fire but found there was no pressure of water due to the fact that the gravity tank supplying the standpipe system was on the same floor level as the fire. When the chief engineer of the building was informed that there was no water pressure at the hose nozzles, he went to the sub-basement and started the fire pumps connected to the base of the standpipe riser. He was later notified that the Cliff Safety Automatic Hose Reel valve on the 15th floor could not be closed. In the operation of running off the hose from the reel, the valve opens automatically. For a predetermined number of turns, depending upon the length of the hose, when the hose is first unreeled, a traveler nut turns on the valve stem until it engages with a fixed nut on the end of the stem. The revolving reel then turns the valve stem which opens the valve. The bonnet or cap on the valve has a left hand thread and is supposed to be held in place by two small top bolts. To properly close the valve it is necessary to pull the wheel out to the fixed nut at the end of the valve stem and turn the valve wheel. Someone in attempting to close the valve apparently pushed the wheel in, which is the natural thing to do, thus engaging the traveler nut on the valve stem. The valve wheel was turned until the traveler nut was turned up hard against the stuffing box of the valve and enough force was used to cause the bonnet or cap of the valve to separate from the balance of the device at the left hand thread connection. The two small machine bolts were not tapped into the body of the valve and thus the valve came apart which allowed the water in the system including the contents of the gravity tank and water from the pumps to flow unobstructed through the 2 1/2 inch opening. The chief engineer of the building shut down the pumps but the gate valve at the gravity tank could not be closed due to the smoke and fire on this floor. An attempt was made to close the valve on the 14th floor but as no one understood the operation of the valve, it was left open. The firemen pulled a hose line up the outside of the building to the 14th floor and up the stairway to the fire.

One hose line was also used from the standpipe system on the 18th floor of the Equitable Building, 108-124 Broadway, across the street. Water flowed from the street Siamese connection of the standpipe system in the Equitable Building after the firemen had disconnected the hose. The gate valve under the gravity tank was closed and an examination was made of the check valve between the base of the standpipe riser and the street Siamese connection which revealed the fact that a piece of wood had lodged in the valve and prevented the clapper from closing.


Building 297-303 Cherry St. and 542-548 Water St., Manhattan.

This seven story and basement ordinary brick building is occupied by various tenants including rags, burlap bag stock, doll and clothing manufacturing, blacksmith and restaurant. The collapse occurred on January 20, 1920, at 6:44 P. M. on the fourth floor in the northeast section which was occupied by M. Adrivin for storage and sorting of rags. The floors above were used for clothing factories.

The engineer of the building was on the second floor on the evening of the accident. He heard a peculiar noise on the floor above and investigated. He found one of the two 12″xl2″ wooden posts supporting the floors above the third had crumbled on the floor. The fourth floor was hanging down about 5′ 8″ and the piping of the automatic sprinkler system had broken in several places. The wooden posts used in this building were loblolly wood. The strength of this wood is classed lower than the poorest grade of pine. The condition of the wood of this post was affected all the way through with dry rot. Any portion of the area of the post could be broken by hand. Most of the wooden posts in the collapsed portion had been covered with metal for more than ten years to the present owner’s knowledge. The advanced stage of dry rot in the post which collapsed was probably assisted by the tight covering excluding the air.

One post each on the fourth and sixth floors, on a line with the one which collapsed, were found in a similar condition, and new posts are being installed. The remaining wooden posts in the building are apparently in good condition. The brick wall which supported one end of the girders in the collapsed section seems to be in good condition. The loads on the fourth floor, also on floors above, were not excessive. The stock belonging to tenants on the lower floors in the collapsed section was damaged by water from the broken piping of the automatic sprinkler system.




Bureau of Surveys, 123 William Street, New York, N. Y.


December 12, 1919, at 5.25 A. M.


32-34 West 40th Street and 23 West 39th St., New York.

New York, December 23, 1919.


The portion of the Club Building involved in this fire is on West 40th Street and is a 13, 12 and 3 story, basement and sub-basement fireproof building of steel skeleton construction with an area of 4,700 square feet. Walls are brick, independent 20-16-12 inches supported on steel skeleton. The partitions are 4 inches thick and constructed of lime plaster on wire lath on iron studding, with doors and trim of fire-proofed wood. There is one large skylight of wired glass on metal over 13 story portion, also skylights of similar material and construction over elevator shafts and 3 story extension. Floors are composition cement or terrazza in basement, first and 9th to 13th inclusive, also in all hallways, otherwise floors are single 1-inch wood, on wood sleepers filled in between with cinder concrete, on cinder concrete flat arches, on steel I beams, girders and columns. Roof is part composition and part tile on arch construction and supports similar to floors. The webs of beams and girders are protected by arch construction and the lower flanges are protected by lime plaster on wire lath except flanges are unprotected in blind spaces with hanging ceilings of lime plaster on wire lath about 2′ lower than the bottom of these flanges; columns are protected by lime plaster on wire lath on steel studding with space not filled in between columns and protection. Ceilings are part plastered direct and part plastered on wire lath with about 2 feet space between ceiling and floor arches. The floor openings consist of three elevators in 2 shafts above the subbasement enclosed in lime plaster on wire lath on steel studding, wired glass on metal skylights above, doors of fireproofed wood metal lined on shaft side and with wired glass in upper panels to floors and small power openings to motors in sub-basement; one iron stairs above basement with composition treads on steel web plates enclosed 11th to 13th floors in shaft of lime plaster on wire lath on steel studding with fireproofed wood doors to floors, otherwise this stairway is open to hallways with walls of a construction as noted under partitions; one iron stairway with marble treads on steel web plates 3d to 5th and one similarly constructed stairway except with composition treads on steel web plates 10th to 13th open to floors, two dumb waiters run from basement to 3d and 10th to 13th are enclosed in shafts of lime plaster, on wire lath on steel studding with fireproofed wooden doors to floors.


Sub-basement is used exclusively for boiler and engine rooms with an independent electric generating plant.

Basement—Tailor Shop, receiving and linen rooms and employees’ lockers.

1st—Offices, grills and reception room.

2nd—Clubroom and Library with 3 open fireplaces.

3rd—Billiard and board rooms.

4th to 9th—Sleeping rooms for members and guests.

10th—General and private dining rooms with 4 open fireplaces, serving kitchen with 1 motor driven knife cleaner, 1 gas heated urn and 1 gas heated plate warmer.

11th—Banquet Hall with two open fireplaces, serving kitchen with 1 steaming table and 1 gas heated plate warmer.

Small balcony between 11th and 12th—Part of main kitchen on 12th, with 1 gas heated baking oven, 4 gas broilers, and 1 gas stove, balance musicians’ balcony.

12th—Main kitchen with 4 section gas range, 1 charcoal broiler, 2 steam heated kettles and 1 gas broiler on concrete floor and hooded and vented to outside of building, 1 steaming table, 1 steam heated plate warmer; helps dining and sleeping rooms.

13th—Barber shop and laundry, 1 gas stove for irons, blower and screen rooms, 1 sleeping room.


The main portion of this building has blank walls where adjoining, otherwise unprotected windows of Club 10 feet and over to unprotected windows on adjoining exposures and 20 feet to wired glass windows in Egineering Societies Building (25-33 West 39th St.), also the main portion of the Club Building communicates with Annex (23 West 39th St., a fireproof building) each floor with sub-standard protection and one communication from 10th floor to 9th floor of Engineering Societies Building (25-33 West 39th St.) through a 20-foot enclosed bridge constructed of metal covered steel frame with wired glass sidelights in sub-standard metal covered sash and frames, with a substandard metal covered panel door at south end and fireproofed wooden door at north end.


The gas and steam heated appliances in kitchens were apparently safely arranged throughout.


There is a 4-inch standpipe with 75 feet of 2J-inch linen labeled hose attached at outlets each floor in the West 40th Street section supplied by Siamese fire department connections on streets, gravity tank on roof and fire pumps in basement, also one 2J-gallon labeled extinguisher each in sub-basement, and basement, and one Pyrene one quart extinguisher on all floors except none on 3d to 9th inclusive. One watchman makes four rounds nightly, recording on 3 combination fire alarm watch stations, in the West 40th Street section.

Discovery and Alarm—

One of the kitchen men, whose duty it was to start the fires in ranges, etc., each morning, in preparation for the cooks, went to the locker room in the front portion of the 12th floor and changed his clothes. When finished, he started for the kitchen to the rear of the 12th floor, and noticed smoke coming up through the unprotecter stairway extending from the 10th to the 13th floors. He then signalled for the elevator and went to the 1st floor to notify the clerk. A citizen noticed the fire from the street and rang in an alarm from a street box at 5.25 A. M. Second and third alarms were sent in after the Fire Department arrived at 5.40 and 6.05 respectively.


The origin of this fire is not known, but it apparently started on the rear of the 10th floor in a serving room, as both the kitchen man and elevator man looked down the rear open stairway, from the 12th floor, and saw the smoke coming from the lower floor before they went to the 1st floor, to notify the clerk. In the serving room on the 10th floor was one knife cleaner driven by electric motor, 1 gas heated coffee urn, 1 gas heated plate warmer and storage of crockery, etc., on wooden shelving. An examination of the electrical and gas heated appliances in this room disclosed the fact that the gas valves on the plate warmer were open and could not be closed without the use of a tool. The watchman did not notice whether the gas was turned on or off this device while on his rounds. It appears that the gas had been burning all night before the fire. Something of a combustible nature may have been placed near, or in contact with, the plate w’armer and ignited.


There was a considerable number of wooden shelves on the side walls of the serving kitchen, on the 10th floor which supplied the flames with ample fuel. The fire passed up through the unprotected stair opening, also through the unprotected windows on the rear and east side walls, to the floors above. The wooden doors to the elevator and dummy shafts, also wooden door and trim on partitions, were all made of fireproofed wood. All this woodwork was either burned through, or badly charred.

How the Fire Was Fought—

The fire was fought by the.public fire department using the standpipe in the building. There were three alarms sent in at 5.25 A.M., 5.45 A.M., and 6.05 A.M. Nine engine companies and three hook and ladder companies responded. The fire was extinguished in less than half an hour.


The fire was confined to the rear part of the 10th, 11th, and 12th floors but extended throughout the 13th floor. Combustible material in the burned area was either consumed by fire or badly damaged. The finish and furnishings of each story below the 10th floor, to and including the 4th floor, were damaged by water.

The one inch lime plaster on wire lath for protection of the steel work in the burned area, either dropped off due to expansion, or was knocked off by the force of hose streams. The heat of the fire did not damage steel work of the structure except the stringers of the rear open stairs between the 10th and the 12th floors are badly warped.

Loss of Life—

There was no loss of life, but several of the help who had sleeping apartments on the upper floors had narrow escapes from suffocation. These employees, also guests on the lower floor were assisted to the street by policemen and other employees, who were on duty the night of the fire. Conclusions—

This fire is another example of the effect of unprotected floor openings and exterior unprotected windows, showing the rapidity with which fire communicates from one floor to another through such openings.

The inferiority of lime plaster on wire lath as protection for steel work, was clearly demonstrated. The major part of this protection in the area of the fire, failed and exposed the steel work.

The woodwork throughout this building is said to have been fireproofed. This woodwork in the area affected by the fire was either burned through or badly charred.