Looking Back 2001: When 5-Alarm Fire Broke Out in Tribeca's Art Academy

A firefighter carries a painting to safety on Franklin Street. Despite extensive damage to the school's building, tender care and teamwork preserved much of the art, including $300,000 worth of work donated for an upcoming auction. Photo: Carl Glassman/The Tribeca Trib

Aug. 12, 2017

Editor's note: On May 25, 2001, a fire broke out in the third-floor kiln room of the New York Academy of Art, destroying roughly half of the school's interior. Firemen fought not only to save the building but salvage as many artworks as possible in what became a team effort by students and firefighters. This story first appeared in the June 2001 print edition of The Tribeca Trib and is one of an ongoing series from our archives.

Maggie Rose stood across the street from the New York Academy of Art, watching smoke pour out of the school's third- and fourth-floor windows. She huddled on the sidewalk with a group of fellow art students as nearly 200 firefighters battled a five-alarm blaze in the building, at 111 Franklin St.

"All of my work is in there," said Rose, a painter from Ontario, Canada, who had just completed the Academy's two-year graduate program. "And drawings I brought from home, two years of notes, personal stuff, photos, it's all in my studio in the basement."

Rose had been on the fourth floor when the fire broke out shortly after 2 p.m. on May 25, and now she was desperate to get back inside. "We don't know what's intact and what's destroyed. I'm feeling sick."

More than 50 other students and school staff members stood on Franklin Street sharing her anxiety and disbelief. About 30 had been inside the five-story building, and all got out safely. Others rushed over when they heard about the fire.

It took 50 firefighting units more than two hours to bring the blaze under control. Three firefighters were taken to St. Vincent's Hospital with minor injuries, according to a Fire Department spokesman.

The Academy had spent about $300,000 renovating the 130-year-old building only last year.

Damage, especially on the second and third floors, was extensive. In the rear of the second floor, offices were reduced to debris. On the third floor, little was left of many studios, the torsos and body parts of student work heaped among the rabble like victims of some terrible explosion.

"It's a clean-up-and-start-over kind of deal," said Academy director Steven Farthing, as he led a reporter on a tour of the destruction. He paused to sift through the debris of his own studio, where nothing remained of the work he had created since coming to the school from England last August. "Can I really relive a year of my life reconstructing these things?" he wondered aloud.

There is still no dollar estimate of the damage, Farthing said. What has been lost, "is not about money, it's about ideas."

The fire occurred less than two weeks before the Academy's annual “Take Home a Nude" auction, the school’s biggest fundraiser of the year. Many of the 250 artworks to be sold, including pieces by Eric Fischl, William Wegman, David Bowie and Academy students and alumni, were being stored in the basement. The graduating students' thesis show was on exhibit on the first floor.

As firefighters battled flames upstairs, water poured down from the ceilings of the lower floors. A Fire Department salvage team, armed with tarps and water pumps, worked quickly to protect and save the art. “The care, they took was unbelievable," said Ken Cronin, the building manager.

When it was deemed safe, a group of students was escorted to the basement. Standing with firefighters in a couple of inches of water, they formed a human chain. Canvases large and small, framed and unframed, were passed from a storage room, down a long hallway, up a flight of stairs and out onto the street. Student work was pulled from the walls and taken to safety as well.

"It was a brilliant example of people pulling together," said Farthing.

On the sidewalk, students carefully checked the condition of their works, finding most of them remarkably undamaged. Alyssa Monks tenderly wiped water from an oval painting of a female nude. "I just got here," she said. "This is so sad."

According to school officials, the fire started in the third-floor kiln room and spread between the second and thirdfloors.

The fire burned its way up the stairs to the fourth floor, but was stopped there. "We managed to get ahead of it and save the building," said Dep. Fire Chief Tom Cashin.

Neal Falanga and Frank Kallop, painting students who had just graduated, were picking up belongings from their fourth-floor studios when they smelled smoke. "I stuck my head out the window and looked down and saw smoke seeping out of a third-floor window," Falanga said.

They found smoke in a stairway and went to check the kiln room on the third floor. "There was nothing but smoke in there," Falanga recalled. "I pulled an alarm and Frank called the Fire Department.

Ann Sin was also on the fourth floor, showing her studio to her brother. "At first there was just a little smoke, but in a few minutes half the floor was filled with smoke and we almost couldn't breathe," she said. "We couldn't take the stairway because it was also full of smoke, so we climbed down the fire escape."

A group of 10 students and staff members was having a party in the first-floor cafeteria for Cronin, the building manager. After seven years caring for the building, he was finishing his last day of work.

"We were having cake and opening cards when the alarm went off," said student Michael Viera.

"When I looked up at the stairwell and saw the smoke, I said, ‘Oh, shit,'" Cronin recalled. He used the building speaker system to order everyone to leave.

"Thank God there weren't too many people in the building," he said. "Normally, there are at least 100 people inside, but because graduation had already happened, there were 30."

On Saturday afternoon, the day after the fire, the Academy's director of student services, Nancy Lindberg, stood outside the building fielding questions from anxious students who wanted to check on their studios and artwork. It would be several days before they would be allowed inside, she told them.

As for the "Take Home a Nude" auction, it will be held at Christie's on June 7.

"Everybody's going to be naked with a fire hat on," quipped Lindberg. "It's going to be one hot sale."