Firefighters Battle 2-Alarm Blaze in Tribeca's Historic Clock Tower Building

Tenth-floor facade of 346 Broadway, scorched by flames from a two-alarm fire. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Mar. 09, 2018

UPDATE MARCH 13, 2018: The FDNY tweeted that the cause of the fire was a space heater too close to combustibles” and determined that it was accidental.

Fire broke out in the landmark Clock Tower Building at 346 Broadway early Friday morning, a few floors below the tower and its rare timepiece that have been the focus of a legal battle between preservation groups and the building’s owners. The historic late 19th century office building, the original home of the New York Life Insurance Co., is undergoing a massive residential conversion and restoration.

More than 100 firefighters responded to the two-alarm blaze, which began on the 10th floor of the 16-story McKim, Mead & White building at about 12:20 a.m. It took an hour-and-a-half to bring the fire under control, the FDNY said. Four firefighters were taken to hospitals with minor injuries and released. Medics treated a fifth firefighter at the scene.

The fire is being investigated by the city’s Fire and Buildings Departments, spokespeople for the agencies said.

Jonathan Hollander, artistic director of Battery Dance Company whose loft at Broadway and White Street has a view of the Clock Tower Building two blocks south, said he was working late when he saw “something red flare out” of the structure. “It was really terrifying to see these flames billowing out of two or three windows. The whole frame of these giant windows, it was all on fire,” he said. “My hands were shaking and I immediately dialed 911.”

Hollander said firefighters began arriving in less than five minutes. That quick response, from Hollander and the Fire Department, may have saved the landmark from far worse damage. According to a Department of Buildings spokeswoman, the fire was “not extensive” and did not go beyond the 10th floor—four floors below the three-story clock tower suite—though there was some damage from firefighting operations from the 11th floor down, she said.

DOB inspectors issued a stop work order (other than cleanup) on the project and handed the owners, Civic Center Community Group Broadway, a violation for “failure to safeguard all persons and property” affected by the construction.

An emailed statement on the fire, attributed to a spokesman for the developer, said: “The incident was isolated to one area of the building where no structural damage was identified. FDNY was immediately on the scene and we are thankful for their prompt response. We are now working with the DOB to have the stop work order lifted following a safety inspection.”

The DOB’s Building Enforcement Safety Team (BEST) will conduct a full inspection of the building next week, a Buildings Department spokeswoman said. Landmarks Preservation Commission staff will also make a site visit to the building next week, said LPC spokeswoman Zodet Negron.

In July 2016, the owners received a DOB violation, yet to be corrected, for “inadequate automatic sprinklers” in the basement and garage. (Permits to install a sprinkler system were issued last month, the DOB said in an email, adding “there is a pending application on file to install automatic fire detection and sprinkler activation system” in order to correct the open violation.)

In a 3-2 decision last December, a state appellate court upheld a lower court ruling in favor of the clock’s defenders who want to prevent the developers from disconnecting the building’s historic clockworks in order to electrify it. The ruling nullifies a decision by the Landmarks Preservation Commission that would have allowed the work. It also prevents the developers from permanently removing—for the first time in the city’s history— an interior landmark from public view. The manually wound clock is one of the few remaining timepieces of its kind that can still function as designed.

The developers, a partnership of the Elad Group and the Peebles Corp., bought the building from the city in 2013 for $160 million and are converting it into 151 condos marketed under the name 108 Leonard.