Fire Destroys Artwork Inspired by Scripture in Texas

Firefighters battle a six-alarm fire and retrieve charred sculptures and paintings from the Biblical Arts Center, a nonprofit, non-denominational organization in Dallas, on Tuesday.

A six-alarm fire Tuesday destroyed hundreds of exhibits inside the Biblical Arts Center, including the massive "Miracle at Pentecost," one of the largest paintings in the world.

Late Tuesday as smoke continued to seep through the museum's roof, firefighters retrieved several charred paintings and a few sculptures from the building. The artwork was lined along a brick wall adjacent to the building while museum officials took inventory.

The center, in the 7500 block of Park Lane, just west of Northpark Mall, is operated by the Miracle at Pentecost Foundation. The center is a non-profit, non-denominational organization founded by the late Dallas philanthropist Mattie Caruth Byrd to fulfill her dream of giving people of every faith a chance to view how the Bible has inspired artists, according to the center's Web site.

The centerpiece work, "The Miracle at Pentecost," was taken from Acts 2 in the Bible. The mural by artist Torger Thompson measured 124 feet wide by 20 feet tall and was unveiled several times a day on the half hour, accompanied by a sound and light show.

Museum director Scott Peck, who was inside the building shortly before noon at the time of the fire, said the "The Miracle at Pentecost" -- a third of a football field in size -- was destroyed.

Peck said by the time he found the fire it already had begun burning the back of "The Miracle at Pentecost" exhibit.

"I tried to use a fire extinguisher, but it was not possible," said Peck, who said the fire moved quickly. "If I would have stayed any longer, I would have been trapped.

During the lunch hour, thick smoke and flames could be seen erupting from the roof of the structure. Firefighters were still extinguishing flareups late Tuesday afternoon.

About 40 people, including a visiting 15-member church group, were evacuated after a staff member smelled smoke inside the building, Peck said. A fire alarm also sounded.

Fire officials were investigating a construction crew's report that they saw a suspicious man run from the building shortly before the fire began.

Fire-rescue spokesman Lt. Joel Lavender declined to comment on that report, saying only that the cause is under investigation. A dog trained to detect accelerants was brought to the scene.

The crew, working on a street adjacent to the museum, said they noticed a very tall, thin man hanging around the museum the past two days, worker Mario Ayala said.

Ayala said that same man was sitting on a bench Tuesday in front of the museum when he suddenly began running from the building.

"He just took off running like a kid," Ayala said. "The crew thought it was weird but didn't pay it any attention until they saw the smoke."

The building, built in 1969, had poor ventilation and no sprinkler system, which hindered firefighting efforts, Lavender said.

In the past, the museum has featured traveling exhibits, including fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls and displays of ancient Bibles.

The Miracle of Pentecost Foundation generated about $1.3 million in revenues in 2003, according to the most recent information available that the foundation filed with the Internal Revenue Service. Tax forms list the value of a mural -- possibly the Miracle at Pentecost painting -- at $165,576. Other art objects were valued at about $122,000 in 2003.

Jim Wicker, a New Testament professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, said the museum's collection likely has more value as an inspirational tool than for biblical research.

Wicker said he was fond of " The Miracle at Pentecost" painting, which depicts the Holy Spirit entering Christians following Jesus' death.

Wicker, a former pastor, led church groups to the museum about six times, he said. He has also offered extra credit to students who visit the museum.

"It's certainly sad for the Christian community," Wicker said. "It was a very inspiring work of art."

Eric White, curator of special collections at the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University, which holds one of the region's leading collections of theological and rare books, said the loss of the "Miracle at Pentecost" is a major blow for the center.

"It's clearly been a very popular piece in the Christian devotional art field. It was big and really a different kind of painting," he said. "And for those not interested in abstract or generally contemporary art, but who were interested in Biblical depictions, it was extremely popular -- especially among the center's Christian visitors."

"I think the center may well have lost its main attraction, and I imagine that might make it difficult for it to make a comeback," White said.

Staff Writers Darren Barbee and Andrew Marton Contributed to This Report.

Distributed by the Associated Press

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