Wanamaker Fire • New York 1956

Yun Gee’s Wanamaker Fire • 1956

Photo: Associated Press 1956

Photo: Robert Frank
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Fire Completes Demolition of Venerable Wanamaker Building

Protracted Fire Fought by 600 Firemen Using over Fifty Pieces of Equipment. Runoff Stalls Subway

IN PROSPEROUS PERIODS every progressive city finds itself engaged in demolition, renovation and reconstruction. New York City is a leading example. In recent years, as tenements have been replaced by housing projects and loft buildings have given way to skyscraper office structures, the flare of the acetylene torch and bonfire have become commonplace.

To the New York Fire Department however, this demolition work has meant extra threat of fire, additional and hazardous work for fire fighters, more complicated and costly hours spent in inspections and handling of permits and violations. To this department, demolition has become so serious that several fire department permits are now required.

The main cause of demolition fire hazards, according to the city’s fire department experts, is the unscrupulous contractor who knows it is cheaper to burn down a building than to rip it down. Another danger stems from the carelessness of wreckers who are not worried about property loss when they flip a lighted cigarette or burning match into debris. And even before the wrecking gang takes over, there is considerable fire menace in vacant premises that often become free flophouses for irresponsibles or ready-made setups for juvenile delinquents.

Ironically at the very time the New York papers carried the story of the lowered fire losses in 1956 (there were 3,773 fewer fires in 1955 than in 1954, and fire losses showed a decrease of $1,547,845), the Wanamaker fire and its aftermath of confusion and discomfort to the city’s subway riders, was making the headlines.

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Carelessness blamed by commissioner

According to Fire Commissioner Edward F. Cavanagh, Jr., the Wanamaker fire is attributed to “careless use of acetylene torches” in demolishing the 94-year-old building. “It was negligence, not arson,” said the Commissioner, adding that fires caused by negligence were becoming “far too common.”

The Commissioner said, “It is very likely the fire was going all Friday night and Saturday (July 13-14).” It was also disclosed that the odor of burning wood had been noticed at various times for a week but wreckers thought it came from burning material from another nearby demolition job. The Commissioner criticized a watchman for “lack of judgment” in assertedly failing to report smoke he smelled on reporting for work Saturday, July 14 at 8:00 a.m.

The battle is drawn, looking east along Ninth Street, separating the old (left) from newer Wanamaker Building. Firemen prevented extension of fire over the three-story connecting bridge (top center) and operated lines from fire escape and windows into 94-year-old former store. Note old water tower in rear. Some of these pumpers reportedly pumped steadily for over 48 hours

Photo by Bill Patten

One corner of the battleground. Heavy streams from deck guns and ladder pipes on Ladder 1 (left center) beat back flames. View is looking toward Broadway

It was also reported that since the building was vacated by Wanamaker it had been used as a sort of flophouse for countless wayfarers.

Building was 1862 marvel

The fire-wrecked structure, known as the original Wanamaker Building, occupied the block bounded on the north by East Tenth Street, the south by East Ninth Street, on the west by Broadway and to the east by Astor Place and Fourth Avenue. It was joined with the newer 14-story Wanamaker Building at the third, fourth and fifth floors by a bridge across Ninth Street.

The building was built in 1862 at the then amazing cost of over $2 million by merchant prince A. T. Stewart, as an uptown counterpart to the Marble Palace, a similar cavernous drygoods establishment erected 16 years earlier, farther downtown. It was built around a cast iron front, then the newest architectural twist.

Stewart died in 1876 and John Wanamaker acquired the building from his former associates in 1896. By shrewd merchandising he held Stewart’s carriage trade and prospered. In 1906 he erected the companion building to the south. Then, as Manhattan trade moved uptown, Wanamaker’s decided to close the old north structure, at which time the Federal Office of Price Stabilization took it over for offices, the department store concentrating in the south building at 770 Broadway. On December 18, 1954,

Wanamaker’s left Broadway at Ninth Street for good. At the end, the value of the north building had been set at $1,700,000.

The Astor Broadway Corporation is understood to have paid $8 million for three properties, the two mercantile buildings and a warehouse, in January, 1955.

Late in June demolition teams of Lipsett, Inc., a salvage company, began destruction of the venerable old building. Just 13 weeks before the old building was to be completely leveled, fire beat them to it. Loss to the salvage firm is said to be $250,000.

It was pointed out by a fire department spokesman that the Lipsett firm was investigated in 1946 for an epidemic of fires which plagued the site of Stuyvesant Town, Manhattan, while the firm was conducting demolition work. Forty-five fires were reported at that location in 13 months.

As a fire, the New York Fire Department has fought other blazes more protracted and more punishing than the Wanamaker fire. Few, however, have necessitated the use of so many fire fighters and equipment and so much fresh water—estimated at 50 million gallons before complete extinguishment. And perhaps none in which the floods used to control the blaze caused so much damage to the city’s transportation system and inconvenience to its subway riders! The resultant damage to the BMT and IRT lines is estimated at $250,000.

Notwithstanding the fact that the fire was largely fought from the outside, a high percentage of fire fighters engaged in the fray suffered injury. Of the 600 men who fought the blaze during the long engagement, some 208 were listed as injured, 29 of them being hospitalized. None of these was seriously hurt. For the most part, injuries were exhaustion, smoke narcosis, impaired vision, cuts and puncture wounds. In addition to departmental medics, the Bellevue Hospital disaster unit and personnel of other hospitals were on the scene.

Responding on the first alarm from Box 447 at 5:45 p.m. Friday, July 13, were four engines, two ladders, Second Division Chief O’Connor, Sixth Battalion Chief White and Fourth Battalion Chief Amaiz, with Fire Patrol 1. The second alarm followed at 6:01, spaced by four additional alarms at between 10 and 15-minute intervals.

First arriving companies took hose lines into the building in an effort to reach the deep-seated blaze in the vast accumulation of rubble. Portions of some of the floors and the iron columns of the building’s vast interior rotunda were standing. Some holes were cut in floors in an effort to bring distributors and cellar pipes to bear on the concealed fire, but even with the reinforcements coming in on the “multiples” it was evident that in the growing darkness and the danger of falling floors and walls in the vast mutilated structure, little progress could he made and there was possibility of heavy injuries to personnel, operating in the interior. Therefore, sometime after 9:00 p.m., all hands were ordered out and the building which was then literally surrounded by master streams from water towers (two were used notwithstanding the department’s signified intention to put them into reserve), deck guns and hand lines. An innovation in fire fighting with New York firemen, at least, was the operation of the department’s first “aerial tower” (described in the July issue of FIRE ENGINEERING).


The bird’s-eye view of the partly demolished and burning Wanamaker Building on the second day of the fire illustrates the type of construction in the venerable landmark, the explosures — notably the 14-story south Wanamaker Building with the connecting three-story bridge. View is looking east over apartments facing Broadway down Tenth Street (left) and Ninth Street (at right). Fourth Avenue and Astor Place are hidden by smoke. Observers on apartments, foreground, and on taller Wanamaker structure equipped with pack-set radio, guide operation of heavy fire streams. At this stage no firemen were operating within the burning building. Crews later entered to overhaul.

Two of the city’s ancient water towers were called into service to add their bit to the 30,000 gpm reported discharged during peak of fire. One of the city's 1000 gpm pumpers is shown operating turret

—Photo by Pill Patten

First of the department’s aerial towers (ladder 1) getting into action. One line and tip ladder pipe operating; second nozzle on main section being readied. This is layout described in the July issue of FIRE ENGINEERING

Ladder 1, the only metal ladder to be equipped with ladder pipes on both the main and fly sections, went into action on the Fourth Avenue side where its two powerful streams did heavy execution.

Fire fighters were well aware of the hazard posed by the below-level tunnel and street bridge connecting the north and south buildings at the third, fourth and fifth floors. Hose streams were operated to beat back any extension of the fire by means of these channels. Lines were also taken up into the south structure and operated across the street, as shown in the accompanying illustrations.

The fire fighting was directed by Acting Chief of Department Arthur J. Massett who remained on the fire ground for 21 hours before retiring for rest. Fire Commissioner Cavanagh, who left a formal party to attend operations, remained continuously from 6:00 p.m. Saturday to 11:00 a.m. Sunday.

At 3:00 p.m. Sunday, Chief Massett turned the direction over to Assistant Chief Edward G. Conway who returned from his vacation a day ahead of time. Chief Massett returned shortly and about 7:00 p.m. Sunday pronounced the main body of the fire under control.

Attack controlled by radio

The department’s mobile and pack-set radio played a major part in fire control operations. The hub of communications was the new field communications unit which was stationed on the east side of Fourth Avenue. It kept in close touch with fire fighters within and outside the burning building, utilizing walkie-talkies on a broad scale. Information on the progress of the fire was relayed to top command on the scene and to fire headquarters.

Public broadcasting, which increased in volume as the fight wore on, and the grapevine rumors of disaster, continued to swell the army of the curious. They were kept well away from the fire zone by heavy detachments of police who did an excellent job not only above ground, but below, in helping to avert panic and serious injury as the water stalled trains, forcing passengers to disembark.

Replacement of tired working fire forces by fresh men brought in by special orders, had a salutory effect. The largest force said to be operating at any one time was not over 200. All-told, approximately 600 fire fighters were used in the action. Additional crews and equipment remained for several days to guard against any resumption of fire.

Chronology of response

Saturday evening, July 14:

Box 447, Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street at 5:45 p.m.—Engines 33, 72, 5, 14; Ladder 3, 9; Chief O’Connor, Division 2; Chief White, Battalion 6; Chief Arnaiz, Battalion 4; Fire Patrol 1.

5:53 p.m.—Signal 75-447 signifying “all hands working.”

6:01 p.m.—Second alarm by Chief O’Connor—Engines 18, 13, 28, 55; Ladder 20, Water Tower 2; Assistant Chief Carrig. Locating—Engines 32 to 33, 21 to 50, 34 to 18; Ladders 12 to 3, 1 to 9 (Ladder 1 was later called to the scene by Acting Battalion Chief Harry Irwin, Supervising Engineer, for use as an aerial tower).

6:17 p.m.—Third alarm by Chief Carrig—Engines 16, 24, 31, 11, 17, 7; Chief Curry, Battalion 36; Fire Chief Massett; Fuel 12; Ambulance 1. Locating: Engines 44 to 16, 256 to 13, 213 to 11, 221 to 17. Engines 256, 213 and 221 were from Brooklyn.

Continued on page 663

Streetcorner conference. Columnist Walter Winchell (left), Fire Chief Massett and Fire Commissioner Cavanagh discuss Wanamaker blaze

Photo by Bill Patten

Continued from page 658

6:40 p.m. — Fourth alarm by Chief Massett. Engines 30, 9, 1, 3, 12; Ladder 11; Commissary 94. Locating: Engines 26 to 30, 209 to 9, 54 to 1, 40 to 3, 205 to 12; Ladder 18 to 11. Engines 209 and 205 reported from Brooklyn.

6:49 p.m.—Fifth alarm by Chief Massett—Engines 7, 27, 15, 65, 8; Ladder 6; Commissioner Cavanagh; Deputy Commissioner Morr. Locating: Engines 203 to 7, 56 to 65, 53 to 8; Ladder 15 to 6. Engine 203 came from Brooklyn.

Note: All alarms except the original Box 447 were by radio.

Additional communications included:

7:03 p.m.—Water Tower 1 to fire.

7:52 p.m.—Floodlight 21 to fire.

8:00 p.m.—Brooklyn Rescue 2 to fire; Rescue 3 (Bronx) relocated in Rescue 1 Manhattan.

8:18 p.m.—Special call for 20 firemen (10 each from Divisions 4 and 5).

8:25 p.m.—Squad 3 from Brooklyn to fire.

9:04 p.m.—Floodlight 22 from Brooklyn to fire.

11:47 p.m.—Ladder 24 and 2 to fire. Sunday, July 15

12:34 a.m.—Ladder 9 (Ladder 1 located) called to fire for benefit of its ladder pipe setup.

3:01 a.m.—Fuel 13 to fire.

3:30 a.m.—Deputy Commissioner Morr called for inspector from the Department of Buildings.

3:52 a.m.—Patrol 2 to fire.

3:54 a.m.—Chief Medical Officer Saland called on full medical staff to stand by for emergency duty.

11:31 a.m.—Special call, Chief Massett, for 10 men each from Divisions 4 and 5.

11:40 a.m. — Supervising Engineer Irwin requests three eductors from Marine Division.

11:41 a.m.—Chief Massett requests CD pumper to respond to Eighth Street and Broadway to pump out BMT subway.

11:53 a.m.—Ladders 6 and 11 recalled to the fire. Ladder 18 to Ladder 11, Ladder 15 to Ladder 6.

1:38 p.m.—Chief Massett called for Ladders 24 and 2. Relocating: Ladder 43 to 2 and 22 to 24.

2:56 p.m.—Rescue 4 called with all available masks.

3:35 p.m.—CD pumper from Ladder 115 called to IRT subway station, Twenty-third Street and Fourth Avenue.

5:09 p.m. Engines 16 and 5 to Box 613 to pump out IRT subway, Twenty-third Street and Fourth Avenue.

6:15 p.m. — Supervising Dispatcher Feldman made following relocations: Engines 36 to 16, 35 to 72, 41 to 35, 92 to 36; Ladders 119 to 9, 14 to 7, 29 to 43. Engines 41, 92 and Ladder 29 came from the Bronx; Ladder 119 from Brooklyn.

6:30 p.m.—Engine 47 to 54.

6:51 p.m.—Radio announcement from Chief Massett reported “main body of fire under control.”

7:18 p.m.—Two floodlights called.

The communications staff at the Manhattan Central Office at the time consisted of Supervising Dispatcher Feldman; Dispatchers Aliquo, Maggio, Perlman, Fireman Ries and Fireman Middlestorb with Mr. Cohen at the radio console and Anne Egan at the switchboard. Chief Dispatcher Charles Keeler was in charge of the entire operation in the Central Park station.

Other “multiples

On Sunday, July 15, at 11:58 a.m., a second alarm was received from Box 4556 in the Bronx. This worker was handled without incident.

On Monday, with many companies still operating at the Wanamaker site, firemen were called upon to fight a threatening blaze in a six-story factory building at 9-11 West Fourth Street near Mercer, just six blocks from the Wanamaker Building.

This fire started shortly before 2 p.m. on the ground floor and spread upward and into the basement. Because so many

companies were working at the Wanamaker fire, what would normally have been handled with a three-alarm assignment drew four alarms.

Twelve firemen were injured in this smokes battle, five being sent to Bellevue Hospital. Also a casualty was Spotty, the Dalmatian mascot of Engine 11, who was treated for a sore foot.

Radio also played an important role in subduing this serious fire.

But still there was no rest tor some of the tired fire fighters. At 4:35 p.m. the same day (July 16), three alarms were sounded for a fire in the one-story manufacturing plant of Stormaster Inc., Dyre Avenue near the Boston Post Road. Part of the root collapsed during the one-hour fight to control this fire, but no one was injured.

Early on the evening of July 14 water began to seep into the IRT subway at Fourth Avenue and Astor Place. About 11:55 that night a section of the track dropped four feet, derailing a four-car train. All passengers were safely evacuated from this train and efforts were made to stem the flow of run-off into the subway but without much success.

The BMT subway at Broadway and Eighth Street was also inundated, despite desperate efforts of workmen to stem the flow of water out of the Wanamaker Building.

The IRT subway was not restored to service until six days after the fire. The BMT service was restored shortly before the morning rush on the 16th. That transit services were restored so promptly was due to heavy concentration of dewatering devices and pumps, including transit subway diesel pump cars, fire apparatus and eductors, Civil Defense and contractors’ equipment.


As a result of the fire it is expected the fire department will urge 24-hour surveillance during all demolition work. Testimony at the investigation showed that only one watchman was assigned to the premises at any time and he was concerned only with preventing trespass.

It is reported also that Mayor Wagner and his advisers are working on a proposal to set up a standard plan for handling major situations involving more than one city department. It is said the five alarm fire and flood developed (1) a lack of cooperation between half a dozen city agencies involved; (2) differences over jurisdiction between police and fire officials and (3) absence of a top authority to give the right orders and make them stick.

It is disclosed that warnings of possible flood sent the Transit Authority by the fire department were apparently ignored. Another problem, according to the press, has to do with auxiliary firemen who tangled with both police and fire.

Acknowledgment: The editors appreciate the cooperation of Contributor William Jerome Daly and officers and members of the New York Fire Department for assistance in the preparation of this report.