September 25, 2018
When The Townsend (12 floors) and St. James (16 floors) were built they were among the tallest buildings in the city at the time, but in those days height came with certain reservations. People simply weren’t used to high buildings and elevators were a new invention. Also, there was public anxiety about the possibility of fire in taller structures, because fire departments weren’t equipped to reach above the sixth and seventh floors.
The Townsend’s initial offering to the public in 1897 included this claim: “The fronts are of stone and it is fireproof throughout.” The boast would be sorely tested in less than three years by a severe fire. While the claim to fireproofing was made often, Christopher Gray the late architectural writer for The New York Times, noted that The Townsend lived up to its claims: “In an age when supposedly fireproof buildings regularly burned to the ground, The Townsend Building fire provided an object lesson that fireproof construction, when properly carried out, was not a fiction.”
On the morning of January 1, 1900, a fire broke out in Room 1104 on the eleventh floor of The Townsend at 1123 Broadway, most probably in a desk drawer. The room was 14 ft. wide by 30 ft. deep. Although small, it was subdivided into three smaller rooms by hardwood and glass partitions and filled with desks, papers, cabinets, shelving and furniture — all of which combined to provide a dense amount of flammable material.
It was a holiday so no one was around to notice the fire for some time. When the building staff became aware they tried to extinguish it with two streams of water, but it had become too severe for them to make any headway. The fire department came, took charge, and eventually quelled the fire being able to access the floors with the building’s elevators.
Accounts at the time say that sufficient heat was generated that it destroyed everything in the office, warped an iron safe, cracked glass transoms and windows (even at a distance from the fire), and melted the copper cornice on the building’s cornice two floors up. However, the raging fire was contained within Room 1104. Of course, there was smoke and water damage to rooms nearby and below, but the fire never spread because the fireproofing remained intact around the columns, walls, arches of the floor above, and the floor beams.
The Real Estate Record & Guide noted the significance of the limited damage in an article on January 27th, 1900: “The recent fire on the 11th Floor of the Townsend Building, at the corner of 25th St. and Broadway, is of more than passing interest as it demonstrates what has often been claimed for first-class fireproof construction — that a fire can be practically confined to a single room, without damage to the structural parts of the buildings, when properly protected by fire-resisting materials.”
In fact, in 1911, there was tremendous loss of life in the Triangle Waistcoat Factory fire. The great loss of life was due to the fact that it took place on the eight, ninth and tenth floors. The fire department could not reach it, because elevator tracks warped and fire escapes collapsed due to poor pinning into the structure of the building. There was also poor fireproofing and emergency planning.
So, what was different in the Triangle Waistcoat Factory fire (which took place 11 years later) from that in the Townsend (built four years before the Asch Building?) Nothing, except that the Townsend was so superiorly fireproofed. In fact, The Townsend would become an example of the safety of high-rise construction as the city began to reach higher and higher in the early part of the 20th Century.