The Equitable Building Fire

In its day, no other private business building in the world could compare with the Equitable Life Assurance Building in New York City in respect to the magnitude of the monetary interests assembled under its roof. Several billion dollars in securities...


In its day, no other private business building in the world could compare with the Equitable Life Assurance Building in New York City in respect to the magnitude of the monetary interests assembled under its roof. Several billion dollars in securities, stocks, bonds and cash were stored in its...


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In its day, no other private business building in the world could compare with the Equitable Life Assurance Building in New York City in respect to the magnitude of the monetary interests assembled under its roof. Several billion dollars in securities, stocks, bonds and cash were stored in its huge basement vaults.

Considered by many as the world’s first skyscraper, the eight-story building at 120 Broadway was completed in 1870. It was the first office building to feature passenger elevators. When it opened for business it held the record as the world’s largest building at 130 feet and held that record for 14 years.

A composite structure, the Equitable Building consisted of five buildings erected at different times. It occupied the entire square block bordered by Broadway, Nassau, Cedar and Pine streets. The buildings had undergone many alterations, including openings on most floors between structures, allowing uninhibited travel from one area to another. The main tenant and owner was the Equitable Life Assurance Society. Equitable’s president, Henry Baldwin Hyde, started a Lawyers’ Club within the building that grew to more than 1,800 members. A large law library featured 40,000 volumes aside from a separate insurance library. The Mercantile Safe Deposit Co., Union Pacific and many other professionals also had offices within the large building. In 1888, the Cafe Savarin opened, occupying a large space in the Broadway and Pine Street corner of the building. The cafe also served the kitchen of the Lawyers’ Club and three big dining rooms.

On Jan. 9, 1912, at 5:18 A.M., a building employee discovered a fire in the basement of 12 Pine St. A wastepaper basket, chair and desk in the watchman’s tiny office were burning briskly. He went to summon help. The fire traveled down a hallway to a large shaft containing two elevators and 11 dumbwaiters that served the Lawyers’ Club and the Cafe Savarin from the eighth-floor kitchen. There were direct openings on each floor from the cellar to roof, with the exception of the fourth floor. Employees attempted to place a standpipe into operation, but stretched short. Finally, an excited employee told a policeman of the fire and 16 minutes after the fire had been discovered, Box 24 was transmitted. It sent four engines, two ladders, two battalion chiefs and the deputy chief of the First Division out into the bitter-cold Manhattan morning.

Engine 6, first in, took a hydrant 2½ minutes after receiving the alarm and immediately stretched into the cellar and began operating. The companies made good progress in the cellar, unaware of the fire on the floors above them. At 5:55, Deputy Chief John Binns received reports of extension on the floors above and transmitted second and third alarms. This brought Chief of Department John Kenlon and Fire Commissioner Joseph Johnson to the scene.

Eight companies had entered the building and operated on the second, third, fourth and fifth floors for nearly a half-hour. Sixty-five-mph winds were whipping the fire out of control. Structural iron and steel supports were exposed to the fierce heat and were ready to buckle. At 6:35, after calling fourth and fifth alarms, Kenlon ordered everyone out of the building.

Because of the early hour, the only people in the building were cleaners, restaurant employees, watchmen, heating engineers and several bank employees. The rapidly extending fire and clouds of thick smoke filled the large building, cutting many people off from their exits. Despite the relatively low number of people inside, firemen would have numerous rescues to make. As the smoke and fire conditions worsened, three waiters from the Cafe Savarin took the elevator to the top floor, but flames drove them to the roof.

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