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Bowery Church Fire

St. Mark's Church in the Bowery.St. Mark's Church in the Bowery.

August 24, 1978

St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery Church is being restored again. The 179-year-old Episcopal church, a New YorkCity landmark thatis the oldest site of continuous worship in the city, was ravaged by fire on July 27th. Ironically, at the time it was, undergoing a $500,000 renovation that was near completion.

The fire began when a workma'n's welding instrument ignited a section of the timber cornice, and from there the blaze spread rapidly. "Smoke was pouring out of the hell tower when we arrived," recalls one of the first firefighters on the scene. "I said to myself, 'This ceiling's going to go.' And sure as hell, there was a partial collapse." The rear section of the 50-foot high peaked roof collapsed a half-hour after the fire began.

The 75 firefighters involved with the three-alarm blaze Were faced with many other problems as well. A six-foot iron fence that surrounded the church and a graveyard on one side prevented the companies from utilizing anything but portable equipment. Consequently, a tower ladder had to be employed to spray the front and rear, while the sides of the church remained practically unassailable.

There was also danger of the 150-foot steeple collapsing. "We kept an eye on the steeple'supports," explains John J. Moffatt, the commander in charge of the fire. "If it fell, we would have had a lot of injuries."

As a result, the fire had to be fought from the outside. "I set up a hose in the doorway to operate after the roof fell down," says Chief Moffatt. A tower ladder was used to bring a line into the cor'nices from the sides, while hand lines were brought in through the unexposed Church House located at the rear of the church.
From the ground, it was also difficult to deal with hidden pockets of fire in the upper areas. Many of them were still being found after the blaze was brought under control, an hour and a half afterit started. "The tower and steeple sustained severe damage," remarks one church official. "However, the tower's fieldstcme base which goes all the way to ground level and the brick and mortar structure above appear to be completely sound.

"The tower acted as a chimney in drawing the fire, which began in the roof," he continues. "Because of this, the building itself , was saved from excessive heat which might have caused the walls to crack and 'blow out.'"

Although the interior decorations are intact, the organ, which sat on the south end of the balcony, was destroyed. The church had no pews, but had a new hardwood floor, recently installed over the sanctuary area It, too, was destroyed by the water and d~bris from the collapsed roof.

"The big problem in this type of fire,' explains Chief Moffatt, "is the heavy wood construction of the roof. "It's like fighting ~ lumber fire. And since it's four stories high, it's very difficult to deal with."

Another factor is the rapid chemica! change that takes place in a wood-frame building fire. The chemical action, destruc: tion distillation of wood or pyrolysis, begin~ when enough heat is generated and the fire then fuels itself with both gaseous anq liquid byproducts. Nonetheless, 14 of the church's 23 stained glass windows, installed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were saved. "We gol the word and were careful with the win: dows," says one firefighter.

Since the fire, friends of the church have organized a major fundraising campaign seeking several million dollars for, restora~ tion. "Immediate commitments of money to get a campaign launched have been received and planning is underway," explains one church official, adding that neighborhood, community and citywide response have been extraordinary. "Offerings of money) labor and material are being received daily," he says.

The destruction of the church was a seti back to the Bowery area where the church has been a focal point of community acJ tivities for generations. The Preservation Youth Project of St. Mark's, for example, sponsors a work training program for 16-1~ year old out-of-school youths.

Nonetheless, the Arts and Communit)Projects of St. Mark's organization hopes to have a full program year commencing, a~ scheduled, in October. "All of us at St. Mark's are determined t9 rebuild," asserts one spokesman. "We be-I gan our restoration work in the belief that a landmark has to fit where it is and who it is.1 We believe that its continued restoration will be a signal of revitalization and new life for our Lower East Side neighborhoods."

Father David Garcia, rector of the church, was more succinct in a sermon he deliveredl shortJy after the blaze. : "This parish must-rise from these ashes, as our Lower East Side community must rise from its ashes. What we have doneherei cannot be diminished by this tragic fire. We have not given up on our city, and we have not given up on dear St. Mark's."

A later version of this story appears at