New York’s First Skyscraper Fire (1898)


(Frank Leslies Weekly/December 22, 1898) No fire in years has attracted more attention in New York City and throughout the country than the one which occurred on December 5th, on Broadway and Warren Street, and destroyed a clothing store and damaged the Home Life Insurance building. The fire is not a notable one because of fatalities connected with it, nor because of the damage done, although that amounted, in round numbers, to a million dollars. This particular blaze will stand out in the history of modern conflagrations, because it was the first to put a so-called absolutely fire-proof building to the test. The “sky-scraper” has been “tried by fire,” and some problems which the fire department and insurance companies had been speculating about ever since the sky-scraper became a leading feature of the city’s architecture have been elucidated.

Frank Leslie’s Weekly, published from 1855 to 1922, was an American illustrated news publication started by publisher and illustrator Frank Leslie. While only 30 copies of the first edition were printed, by 1897 its circulation had grown to an estimated 65,000 copies.

The Two Most Notable Sky-Scrapers on Park Row, New York.


Chief Bonner, the head of the New York fire department, for a long time maintained that if a building of twenty or more stories should get afire it would be impossible to fight the flames with water on the upper floors, for the reason that no stream, under present conditions, could be thrown so high.

This was proved to be the fact in the fire under consideration. The water carried no farther than the sixteenth story of the Home Life building, and as far as this only because the firemen were able to drag the hose up several floors within the building. The chief has been opposed to very tall buildings because of the impracticability of sending the water to a sufficient height. But he says that since they seem to be inevitable in a city of the contracted space of New York, each one of these buildings should be supplied with a complete fire equipment of its own, with pumps, stand-pipes, and hose on every floor.

And yet with all the disadvantage of a fire high in the air, and despite the fierceness of the flames in the adjoining building and the terrific wind that was blowing these flames directly toward the Home Life building, it is still standing intact. Hardly a stone is displaced. A rebuilding of some of the upper part of the front wall will be necessary, because the marble was cracked by the intense heat, but the wonder is that this wall, in the very thick of the flames from the burning store next door, did not collapse. Certainly, as far as outer walls are concerned, the sky-scraper has shown itself to be fairly fire-proof.

Another indication of the fire-resisting qualities of our iron buildings is the fact that the fire did not burn through from floor to floor. The flames were blown in at the windows by the wind, and each story that was affected may be said to have had an independent fire.

Looking Down Broadway Toward the Battery From The City Hall, Showing a Number of Tall Buildings.

These were sufficient to do much damage, as well as to make each window appear like the mouth of a fiery furnace, glowing in the darkness of the night with fine spectacular effect. There was evidently much food for the flames within, and since the walls and floors would not burn, this food must have been interior wooden fittings and office furniture. The fact that this was the case suggests a simple way of enabling the buildings to more nearly justify their name of being absolutely fire-proof. If there were no wooden fittings, and if office furniture were made more impervious to flame through the material used in its construction, or by some flame-resisting preparation, it would be possible to burn a barrel of tar in a room in one of New York’s great buildings without doing a particle of damage. Then the buildings would be fire-proof in fact as well as theory. It is the interiors that must now be looked to.

As it is, however, the sky scraper has done well. The spectacle of the immense Home Life building, still towering to its full height, while the old-fashioned building that stood beside it is merely a heap of blackened bricks in a gaping hole, is a strong proof of the fire-resisting qualities of our improved structures. Indeed, it is said by experts that the great walls of the Home Life building prevented the flames from spreading in the strong wind and engulfing the block, and perhaps many blocks. So it may be said again that the sky-scraper has vindicated itself as far as fire is concerned. That this is true is a matter for New-Yorkers to be thankful for, because so many of these buildings have been erected that the Babylonian architecture of New York City, in this modern sky-scraping era, is the wonder of the world. These marvelous structures, being exclusively for business occupancy, are grouped chiefly on lower Broadway, Nassau, Ann, Fulton, and Wall streets. Interspersed as they are among buildings of bygone successive eras—ten, twenty, thirty, forty years ago—the most striking contrasts are effected. How impressive these contrasts are, the two photographs here reproduced, in connection with our superb picture of the fire, may convey some idea. One is the perspective of lower Broadway, from Fulton Street to the Battery, showing the congested traffic, and in the left foreground the comparatively modest houses of Knox the hatter and the Evening Post . Farther down, the tall insurance buildings stand in serried ranks.

The second photograph, in which is shown the junction of Park Row and Broadway at Ann Street, may serve as an up-to-date object-lesson in the architectural history of Manhattan. On the right is the twenty-story St. Paul building, occupying the former site of the Herald . On the left is the skeleton frame of a still more stupendous structure, which has already reached the height of twenty stories, and yet shows no sign of stopping. Sandwiched between these two monsters are a trio of comparative old-timers: the four-story brick of a generation ago, the five-story brown-stone front that was in vogue in the ’seventies, and, finally, the handsome eight-story building on the Ann Street corner, built only about ten years since, yet now completely dwarfed by its new neighbors.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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