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Nondescript And Once Semi-Famous

The two buildings in my photo have very different histories but are tied together by more than just being on adjoining lots. The taller building on the left is a the Home Life Insurance building, a mid-1890s skyscraper constructed on Broadway facing City Hall Park. There was a small building north (to the right) that housed the Rogers, Peet department store, and another early skyscraper, the Postal Telegraph Building, to the south.

In 1898, Rogers, Peet burned down. It was a building with wood-joist floors and a high fire load (it was, like most department stores, full of cloth) and it burned fast and hot. Hot air rises, and secondary fires broke out in the Home Insurance building, causing considerable damage to some of the interior spaces at the upper floors. The fire demonstrated a vulnerability of high-rises to fires in nearby low buildings, but it also showed the success of structural fireproofing as it was then built, since the frame and floors of Home Insurance were more or less undamaged and the facade damage could be repaired without demolition.

Rogers, Peet rebuilt in a new, slightly taller, fire-proofed building. Here’s an old postcard – mailed in 1907 – showing the new store on the right:

The use of a steel frame in the new store allowed for bigger windows than the destroyed building. And now the brick piers encasing the columns and and the brick over the spandrel beams is being restored, which is why there’s a pipe scaffold in place.

If the Rogers, Peet fire sounds interesting, or the topic of learning from disasters does, chapter 5 of The Structure of Skyscrapers may be for you.