Cathedral Woodworking Shed Fire (1916)

shedfire1detail.jpg“About 1:45 a.m. on Saturday, April 22d, many of us were awakened by the sounds of roaring flames and hissing steam. Several persons claim the distinction of being the first to discover the fire. At any rate, when they arrived, the whole southeast side of the blacksmith shop, where the monometal [sic] workers had their forges, was aflame (see photo above, note anvils in foreground). Mr. Gustave Glebe was unable to reach the top of the flames with the hand fire extinguisher that he carried to the fire from his nearby home. Soon the tar paper roof caught, and from its intense heat the great timbermen’s shed, which stood close by the blacksmith shop, caught the flames” (New Church Life 1916, 382).

The fire of April 22, 1916, started in the forge of the new blacksmith shop, and went on to destroy the large woodworking shed and modeling shop (situated at the lower end of the shed at ground level). Timbers that were being prepared for the chancel roof and the north nave aisle roof were lost, as were many models of the cathedral.

The woodworking shed had been the site of a notable luncheon the year before on May 28, 1915. Over one hundred workmen had been invited to hear an address in the shed by Ralph Adams Cram, whose Boston architectural firm, Cram and Ferguson, had originally been given the job of producing a design for the cathedral (see New Church Life 1915, 479).

Raymond Pitcairn wrote a detailed description of the woodworking shed fire and its aftermath. This document (date unknown) is located in the Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn Archives, Bryn Athyn, PA. A transcription follows:

“But one weird night—it was [the 22nd] day, the [month of April] of 1916,—months after the luncheon in the Great Shed, we woke to see the sky red with crackling flames which issued from the group of buildings on the Church site. The wind blew high, and fear, with a poisoning lethargy, paralyzed my limbs. The fire started from a smouldering forge fire in the newly finished blacksmith shop just south of the great wood-working shed. The danger was that the scaffolding of the sanctuary and chancel would take fire; and mounting the ramped runway of the staging, a number of men stood ready to extinguish sparks that showered high overhead. People gathered from all the houses in Bryn Athyn, and others came from Huntingdon Valley and we worked in disordered fashion, saving the smaller timbers as the fire moved rapidly northward through the timber shed. Two completed bays of the chancel roof and all of the north nave aisle roof, just finished, were destroyed. One great tie beam, the finest and whitest piece of oak we ever cut, and free from all but the smallest checks, was burned. The charred remnant of this beam and of several other large timbers were cut down into much smaller pieces and used for other portions of the roof.

Besides the beams and timber roofs destroyed with the great shed, we lost many interesting models, including the third model of the exterior of the Church, and a model, both interior and exterior, of the sanctuary, choir and crossing, at one-eighth full size. There were also other losses, among them several handsome trees in the border planting near the ruined shed. But thankfulness that the Church stood untouched left little room for regret over what had been destroyed. The administration office and the draughting rooms had narrowly escaped.

shedfire3detail.jpgIn the cold dawn of the next morning came those of the men who lived in Philadelphia to work, knowing nothing of what had happened in the night, and gazed with sad faces on the blackened ruins of their labor (see top photo). But [Edwin] Asplundh was already taking account of what we needed to rebuild, and we set to work with energy to repair the loss (see photo of rebuilding above). In [left blank] days the great shed rose from its ashes. The most serious problem was to secure new trees. The total redesigning of the nave roof, which came afterward, required far larger timbers for tie beams to span the nave than were previously intended. A direct result of the fire was a new design for the roof of the north nave aisle, to replace the finished work lost in the fire. The new roof has two purlines, different mouldings and a different plate from that of the south aisle roof which had been erected before the fire. Those interested can easily discover the variation in this roof made after the fire, from that of the south aisle roof.

Due to careful study given it before the fire, the large interior and exterior model of the sanctuary and chancel had served its purpose, and we began a new one, incorporating all the changes which study of the burned model had suggested, and to the new model we added the tower and a rough board model of the nave. The sanctuary, chancel and crossing were built upon a platform which rolled out on tracks to the rough model of the nave where the whole could be studied in sun light. The nave was built without a floor so that standing below, one’s head came just above the floor level and the effect of lighting of the interior could be observed.

The new metal shop and its studio of design, was rebuilt to the northwest of the Church, far from other buildings. This shop has grown by several additions, some of which were made within the past year. It will be long before our work is finished and this and the two great sheds will doubtless stand for years, adjacent to the Church, for the development of new work which, through those in our building and architectural arts departments, I hope to carry on” (Raymond Pitcairn. Unpublished manuscript. Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn Archives, 2-4).

Photos: Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn Archives, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. Rebuilding photo: The man standing on the beam is Harry Bowman, a freelance building superintendent hired in 1914 to be head of the woodworking force. He eventually became head superintendent of the cathedral building project.

Further reading (a photo album):

“Bryn Athyn Cathedral Construction”

Questions and comments may be addressed to the editors at [email protected].

June 27, 2007 | Posted by: Ed and Kirsten Gyllenhaal in New Church History Fun Fact