Article on the destruction of the Winter Garden Theatre

Event Information

Venue(s):
Winter Garden

Proprietor / Lessee:
William [Winter Garden] Stuart

Manager / Director:
Edwin Thomas Booth

Record Information

Status:
Published

Last Updated:
17 February 2016

Performance Date(s) and Time(s)

24 Mar 1867

Citations

1)
Article: New-York Times, 24 March 1867, 1.

“Total Destruction of the Winter Garden Theatre—Considerable Damage Occasioned to the Southern Hotel—Aggregate Loss about $250,000.

A disastrous fire occurred yesterday morning, resulting in the complete destruction of the Winter Garden Theatre, and considerable damage to the Southern Hotel, formerly known as the Lafarge House. The alarm of fire was first given by one of the attaches of the theatre, who discovered the flames beneath the stage about 8:40 o’clock. Almost at the same moment Mr. W. Stuart, one of the lessees and business manager of the theatre, heard the sound of flames, as he was seated in his private room, and on opening the door was surprised to find the entire stage in a blaze. The alarm was speedily given by the Fifteenth Ward Police, and in a few moments signal No. 164 (corner of Bleecker and Broadway,) was rung from the watch towers… [Lists all firehouses involved; there were many.]

[A detailed account of the fire and its containment follows; here given are only highlights of that account.] In an incredibly short space of time the flames had wrapped the entire interior of the Winter Garden in a sheet of fire, and the firemen were unable to work therein owing to the intense heat, when their efforts were mainly directed toward preventing the destruction of the Southern Hotel and adjoining buildings. In this they were partially successful…

By 9 o’clock the flames had reached their limit and the spectacle was one of peculiar grandeur and effect. Huge volumes of dense black smoke were vomited from each of the large windows in the Mercer-street wall, and the heat was intense. So great, indeed, was this heat that the firemen were soon unable to stand before it, and according beat a retreat from that quarter….

At 9:15 the roof of the theatre fell with a fearful crash, and an immense cloud of dirt, smoke and sparks rose high in mid-air. This was a fortunate occurrence, as the roof of the hotel had caught fire and the heat was so great that the firemen could scarcely stand before it. When the smoke had cleared away they renewed their efforts, and extinguished the flames on the roof…

From this hour until 12 o’clock the firemen maintained their struggle with the flames, and at noon the rescue was nearly completed, though the wreck was a terrible one.

the losses.

The aggregate loss occasioned by this disastrous fire is roughly estimated at $250,000. Both the theatre and hotel are owned by the Lafarge estate, as also the ‘stock’ scenery and properties of the former…

Messrs. Edwin Booth and W. Stuart also suffer severe losses. These gentlemen were the joint lessees and managers of the Winter Garden, and their extensive and valuable wardrobes, used in the recent Shakespearean revivals, as well as a large amount of new scenery and properties, were all destroyed by the flames. These articles were valued at $60,000, and uninsured. Considerable preparation had been made for the production of a new local piece by John Brougham, and the scenery was in a forward state, when the first destroyed it all. In addition to these losses Mr. Booth is a heavy loser by the total destruction of his private wardrobe and many valuable presents. This wardrobe was considered to be the most extensive and valuable one in the possession of any single actor on this conteinent, and was valued at $60,000 upon which it is understood Mr. Booth had not a dollar of insurance. The stock of scenery belonging to the theatre was a very old one, having accumulated for many years, and a portion came from Burton’s old Chambers-street Theatre.

Mme. Methua-Scheller is also a heavy loser by this fire, she having had at the theatre several large trunks filled with very costly dresses, which were all destroyed. They were all valued at between $2,000 and $3,000, and were uninsured. [Goes on to list property lost by other non-performers.]

origin of the fire.

Considerable doubt exists regarding the origin of the fire, half-a-dozen different theories and suggestions having been set afloat. The fire broke out, it is supposed, in a room beneath the stage, but it appeared with such suddenness and force that it seems impossible to ascertain its origin. It is believed, by both Mr. Booth and Mr. Stuart and the attaches of the theatre to have been the work of an incendiary. The boiler which heats the house had not been at work the past few days, and there were no fires burning.

Another theory is that the flames derived their origin from a large stove used for heating the stage, though the lessee’s statement that no fires were burning yesterday would seem to discredit this view. During yesterday forenoon Special Detective Barker, of the Fifteenth Precinct, appeared before the Fire Marshal and made a statement in relation to the first. He stated that at 8:45 o’clock word was brought to the Station-house in Mercer-street that a fire had broken out in the Winter Garden Theatre. He went immediately to the theatre, entered by the rear entrance, and found somke issuing from one of the trapdoors on the stage. He got the hose out and attached to both hydrants in the theatre, and the pipes placed by the trap-door, when he called to start the water, but none came. [It continues that he struggled in vain for some time to find help and water.] He went to the office and saw Mr. Jackson selling tickets for the matinée, and told him the theatre was on fire…

Mr. M. W. Leffingwell, on eof the actors engaged at the Winter Garden, stated to our reporter that he noticed the smell of rags burning during the performance of ‘Brutus’ on Friday evening, about 9 o’clock, and he also heard other members of the company mention the fact. It was also stated, with what truth our reporter could not ascertain, that the carpenters noticed the smell of fire yesterday morning and were looking for it when the flames burst forth.

incidents.

Several narrow escapes occurred during the fire. Mr. Stuart at the time of the discovery was in his sleeping apartment in the theatre, only partially dressed, and was compelled to leave his watch and pocket-book on the table when hemade [sic] his hurried exit…

reminiscences of the theatre.

The site on which the Winter Garden Theatre stood is historic. Many years ago an ambitious builder erected a first-class music hall there, which he called ‘Trippler,’ after himself. Therein the immortal Jullien, with placid countenance and ruffled shirt, front faced the pleased public, and provided for them a series of popular entertainments as remarkable for their character as their success. There it was that Mlle. Jenny Lind sang her way to the hearts and pockets of the men and women of America. Trippler Hall was burned to the ground, and upon its foundation was reared a second hall devoted to music and public meetings generally. After a little Miss Keene hired the place, and partially remodeled it for theatrical purposes, calling it Laura Keene’s Varieties. Mr. Burton as this time was playing to a good business at his cozy theatre in Chambers-street, where he made a fortune and a name. He coveted the ‘Varieties,’ and indulged in a variety of schemes by which to obtain it. He finally succeeded, but with that success ended his prosperity. The theatre was poorly adapted to the business, and seemed rather like a country barn than a city resort. Burton lost his money, temper and reputation in his new venture, and finally died. He was succeeded by Messrs. Boucicault and Stuart, two managers who understood thoroughly what the public needed. They altered the place entirely, making it smaller, more comfortable and less like an unfurnished circus tent. They added the lobbies, the ante-rooms and boxes, improved the stage and virtually made it new.

A series of successes attended the new firm until Mr. Boucicault’s departure, when Mr. Stuart managed it alone, under the name of Winter Garden. Mr. Edwin Booth, Mr. J.S. Clarke and Mr. Stuart bought the lease of the property subsequently, Mr. Stuart retaining the position as the manager, in which status it remained until recently, when Mr. Clarke retired.

[Name capitalization in this paragraph is inconsistent.] The theatre has been conducted on the ‘Star’ principle entirely, and many notable engagements are upon its books. Within the past year Mr. Booth, Mr. Clarke, the Williamses, the Maretzek Opera Troupe, John Brougham and the Buislay Family have played long and profitable engagements, the leading support being given by Miss Rose Eytinge, Mme. Methua-Scheller, Miss Ida Vernon and Messrs. Barton Hill, John Dunn, Leffingwell, Wm. Davidge, W.S. Andrews and J.N. Gotthold. Mr. Booth’s ‘revivals’ of Shakespeare’s playes are among the memorable performances at Winter Garden. His present engagement was to have terminated on the 8th of April, when he was to be succeeded by Mr. John Brougham in a new local drama. The total destruction of the theatre involves serious inconvenience and personal loss to Manager Stuart, who was wholly uninsured, and barely escaped with his life, unable to save even his wallet or his watch, to Mr. Booth, whose valuable wardrobe was consumed and can with great difficulty be replaced; to the several artists upon whose daily labor depends their daily bread; to the scores of employes [sic] about the premises, and to the public generally, who have long regarded the Winter Garden as one of the most attractive and gratifying of theatrical resorts.”