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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

This Week in BAM History: Burning Down the House

The morning of November 30, 1903 began quietly at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn Heights. Around 8:45am, stagehands were in the middle of taking down sets for Way Down East, which had played the week before, and preparing the opera hall for a banquet for Senator Patrick Henry McCarren. Suddenly a small explosion occurred near the stage—most likely due to a gas leak—and the scenery as well as the canvas border around the stage ignited.

Panicked, a stagehand ran down Montague Street to sound the fire alarm, while others from the crew tried to quell the flames with a small water-hose. But within a few minutes the entire auditorium was aflame, and the ceiling was already beginning to cave in.

The first fire crew arrived around 9:05. Three more crews arrived within 10 minutes, although the fire department had given up on trying to save the Academy by 9:20. The water supply was weak, and they estimated that it was already too late for the Academy, with its all-wood interior.

The crews turned their attention to the surrounding buildings on Montague Street, many of which had caught on fire. The saloon next door was crushed by the Academy’s falling debris, and windows across the street shattered from the surrounding heat. People up and down the block were dragging furniture and other belongings into the street, trying to save what they could, as employees of a nearby bank scattered to assemble all of the cash on the premises so they could transfer it to another branch.

Hours later, only the front and back facades of the old Academy were left standing. An employee of the Academy was crushed by a collapsing wall and died. The total cost of the damages, which included the surrounding buildings, was estimated to be $237,000. While embers were still glowing up and down Montague Street that afternoon, real estate agents do what they do best and circled in for the kill. One company offered the Academy $600,000 for the site (which had been purchased for $41,000 in the late 1850s), nearly three times the amount of the Academy’s damage. Although for the time being there was no more Brooklyn Academy of Music—it took five years for the Academy to reopen at its current site in Fort Greene—its stock actually went up that day.

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