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19th Century Fire at East Village Icon Changed the Skyline, and Safety Rules

The tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in Greenwich Village and its impact on women’s rights and the labor movement is well known. There is a plaque at the Brown Building at 22-39 Washington Place, now an NYU building, to commemorate the fire so that its past is not forgotten.  There is another building in the East Village, just a few blocks away, that less than a decade earlier was also the site of a tragic, and impactful, fire.

In 1883 there was a fire at the school of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer that led to the deaths of 16 children. The Roman Catholic Church of the Most Holy Redeemer at 173 East 3rd was built in 1851 -1852 by the Redemptorist Fathers. Today, the Church primarily serves a Spanish-speaking population, but like many other sites in the East Village, its history can be traced back to a time when the area was known as Kleindeustchland or Little Germany.

With a tower that today reaches into the sky far beyond most of the structures of the East Village, it is hard to believe that Most Holy Redeemer’s original tower soared even higher, to more than 250 feet. Today the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer is a majestic limestone, high Romanesque style building although it was originally designed in the elaborate and highly ornamented baroque style and altered in 1913 by architect Paul Schultz. This remarkable Church was called out for its historic significance in a study of the East Village that was completed as part of the area’s rezoning.

The school building, located directly behind the church on East 4th Street, is a four story brick building with a far humbler Romanesque façade. On the afternoon of February 20, 1883 a small fire broke out that led to the deaths of 16 schoolchildren and left 8 more injured. There were 900 children enrolled at the school and when smoke climbed into the second and third story classrooms a panic took hold. The children rushed into a staircase at the western end of the building to flee the fire. The rush of children into the narrow (3 feet wide) staircase became chaos which turned into tragedy when the railings (affixed to the walls only with nails) gave way and children fell from the stair to the floor below. As more children descended the stair pushing and crushing those ahead of them, more children fell off the stair into the pile of children reported to be four deep.

An investigation of the fire and the cause of the children’s deaths led to a number of actions. The jury in a court case to determine if any parties – the school, the Bureau of Buildings or the Fire Department – had been negligent in any way found that no parties were negligent and recommended that fire drills should be practiced and that handrails be installed on both sides of the stairway. In his defense, Mr. Esterbrook, the Superintendent of the Bureau of Buildings claimed that it had, “neither men nor money enough to properly carry on (its) work” — a refrain we still often hear today.

A month after the fire, the Bureau of Buildings did require changes to the school: the stairways were extended to all floors of the building and an escape ladder was added for access to the roof. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children took on an independent investigation of the fire safety of a number of schools in the city and found that 45 out of 66 were unsafe. They found schools with no fire escapes, locked or inward opening doors, shaky railings, and narrow stairs at schools citywide, including some in the surrounding neighborhood such as St. Brigid’s School (demolished) at 302 East 8th Street, the former St. Ann’s School at 113 East 11th Street, the Hebrew Free School at 624 5th Street (demolished) and St. Anthony’s School at 60 MacDougal Street in the South Village.

While it took a great deal of time, the persistence of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, one of the earliest children’s advocates against child abuse and endangerment, led to changes in the fire safety measures at New York City schools.

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