Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Big Fire at the St. George

We are approaching the anniversary of the St. George Hotel fire. I only just learned about this blaze when someone wrote into the Eagle's Ask Anything about Brooklyn column ( wondering when the Clark Street entrance to the hotel reopened after the fire.

Situated in north Brooklyn Heights, just above the Clark Street subway station, the St. George Hotel was at one time the largest hotel in New York City, which is an accomplishment.

It was a modest 30 rooms when it was first built in 1885, but it continually expanded and eventually amounted to eight interconnected buildings. By the time the St. George’s Tower Building (facing Hicks Street) was completed in 1930, the hotel occupied the full city block bounded by Clark, Henry, Pineapple and Hicks streets and had 2,632 guest rooms.

According to Francis Morrone’s An Architectural Guidebook to Brooklyn, both the hotel’s 11,000 square foot ballroom and indoor saltwater swimming pool were said to be the largest in the world. The roof was home to a fashionable nightclub.

With all this grandeur, you can imagine the caliber of the guests that paraded through: they ranged from F. Scott Fitzgerald to FDR. Stories of the hotel’s glitzy past are being collected by a St. George Tower Oral History Project, a Yahoo group started a few years ago by a resident of the tower, which was converted into co-op apartments around 1984.

It’s no secret that over the years the hotel’s opulence faded and pretty much died when the property was broken up between multiple owners and some of the rooms were used as welfare residences in the 1980s. Some of the buildings were vacant by 1995, when a fire broke out around 3 a.m. on the morning of August 26.

According to the United States Fire Administration, which issues reports on selected major fires throughout the country, the fire at the St. George Hotel was the largest New York City had seen in more than 20 years. It took more than 700 firefighters to get it under control.

Residents of nearby brownstones were using garden hoses to protect their own homes as sparks leapt from the enormous fire to nearby rooftops and open windows. Many elderly and handicapped people lived in the adjacent Tower Building and firefighters had to force their way into 84 apartments to assist in the evacuation of residents. Everyone got out safely.

The top floor of the 9-story Clark Building, then vacant, was where the fire originated. Since it had been vacant, the standpipe was out of service, which only complicated the firefighters’ efforts. The fire quickly escalated and spread to adjacent buildings, but by far the worst damage was done to the Clark Building itself, which essentially collapsed with only the masonry bearing walls remaining.

It was rebuilt and opened in 2005 and is now used as student dorms, run by a company called Educational Housing Services (EHS).

The photo of the fire is from video shot by Eddie McDonald and was obtained via the United States Fire Administration report

Monday, August 10, 2009

Brooklyn's ‘Sunny Jim’

One of the greatest horse trainers of all time, "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons, was from Brooklyn. He is pictured here in the foreground along with jockey Jim Stout, who sits astride “Johnstown” after winning the 1939 Kentucky Derby. “Johnstown” went on to win the Triple Crown that year. He also sired another Triple Crown winner, “Omaha.” To this day, there have only been 11 Triple Crown winners, and Sunny Jim is the only person to have trained two of them.

Sunny Jim had an auspicious start in the horse business as he was actually born on the land that was to be become Sheepshead Bay Racetrack, one of three tracks in southern Brooklyn. There were also tracks at Gravesend and Brighton Beach.

We ran a story and more photos about this guy in the Eagle recently. The photos were sent on to us by his great grandson, Jimmy Carr.