The Central Fire

The Central Fire

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Norman State Hospital

The first structure on the hospital site actually was a school for women opened in the late 1800s. High Gate Academy couldn't compete with the nearby University of Oklahoma, and in 1895 it was sold to the Oklahoma Sanitarium Co. Mental patients who until that time had been sent by train to a facility in Illinois could now be treated at the Norman institution “for violent insane,” as a description on the facility's front gate stated.

In 1899, sanitarium officials hired David W. Griffin, a psychiatrist from North Carolina.

Griffin would become superintendent in 1902, a position he would hold until 1950. The sanitarium was sold to the fledgling state of Oklahoma, and in 1915, the legislative “Lunacy Bill” created several state asylums, including facilities at Fort Supply, Vinita and Norman. The Norman site became known as Central State Hospital.

Patient populations at the Norman hospital grew, reaching 3,000 in the 1950s. At times, conditions reported there, as at many similar institutions of the era, were grim, with overcrowding, inadequate heating and cooling and use of electric and insulin shock therapy, sterilizations, lobotomies and other approaches now considered inhumane. Patients might remain there for months or years.

Beginning in the 1960s, medical approaches to treating the mentally ill evolved, and laws and standards of care with them. “Deinstitutionalization” began to wind down the era of huge residential mental facilities, taking much of the expansive Central State Griffin Memorial Hospital, as it was renamed in 1953, with it.

By 1990, only 245 patients remained at Griffin Memorial, which no longer needed the comprehensive and self-sustaining infrastructure it once had. Today, Griffin's patient capacity is only 120, and stays are measured in weeks or days.

The Central Fire - History

A comprehensive Fire Regime Synthesis for plains grassland and prairie ecosystems has not been published in the Fire Effects Information System. Information from relevant literature reviews is summarized here, and results from primary fire history studies conducted in these ecosystems are described briefly in table A1. Summary information from LANDFIRE succession modeling of plains grassland and prairie Biophysical Settings (BpS) in central North America is given in table 1. Table A2 provides a complete list of BpS and includes links to full BpS descriptions. Common names of plant species are used in this summary. See table A3 for a list of common and scientific plant names and links to FEIS Species Reviews.

Figure 1—Distribution of prairie and plains grassland ecosystems based on the LANDFIRE Biophysical Settings (BpS) data layer [26]. Click on the map for a larger image.
Historically, frequent fires played an important role in plains grasslands and prairies by removing accumulated litter, stimulating native grass production, and impeding establishment and spread of cacti and woody plants. Probability of ignition, rate of fire spread, fire patchiness, fire size, and fire severity vary with fuel and weather conditions. Continuity and loading of ground, surface, and woody fuels (i.e., plant community composition) vary across the Great Plains and over time, because they are influenced by interactions of moisture availability (e.g., site and soil type, climate and weather patterns), fire timing and frequency, and grazing patterns [23,46,62]. Information on fuel characteristics and associated fire behavior in tallgrass prairie communities is provided by Twidwell et al. (2016) [53], Kidnie and Wotton (2015) [22], and Wragg (2018) [61]. Leis (2013) provides and overview of fuels management in the Great Plains [28].

Throughout the Great Plains, woody plants were historically mostly restricted to drainages and mesic sites with infrequent fire [39,46]. Moisture availability limits woody plant cover and height potential in dry areas of the Great Plains, and frequent fire is a primary limiting factor of woody plant cover in relatively mesic grassland and tallgrass prairie sites [42,46]. For example, in the Northern Great Plains, lack of moisture limited the spread of woody plants onto dry upland sites, whereas frequent fires slowed the spread of woody plants (such as sagebrush, eastern redcedar, and quaking aspen) on relatively wet upland sites [46].

As woody plants grow and spread, herbaceous fuel loads and continuity decline, thus reducing the probability of fire ignition and spread and allowing continued establishment and spread of woody plants [39]. Dominant woody plant species vary across sites, and flammability of woody fuels varies among species (e.g., Ashe's juniper is more volatile than honey mesquite) [62]. In the south-central Great Plains, relatively dry grasslands (<81 cm mean annual precipitation) are more likely to succeed to shrublands, whereas grasslands in areas with higher annual precipitation are more likely to succeed to woodland or forest in the absence of fire [42].

Spread of woody plants into grassland and savanna ecosystems of the Great Plains is a common topic of study (e.g., [4,24,33,48,60]). For example, Milbauer (2007) examined the effects of fire history on plant community composition in Wisconsin tallgrass prairie remnants [33] Bowles (1998) examined succession in a fire excluded savanna remnant in Illinois [4] Starns (2020) studied the effects of fire exclusion on previously fire-managed semiarid savanna ecosystem in Texas [48] and Widenmaier (2010) described tree establishment and spread into fescue grasslands in southeastern Alberta [60].

Timing of historical grassland fires was dictated by ignition source, plant phenology (i.e., fuel moisture), and weather. Most thunderstorms in the Great Plains occur from April to October, and most lightning fires occur between May and September, especially July and August. American Indians set fires in grasslands during both the growing season and the dormant season (both spring and fall) [23,46].

Grassland vegetation typically begins growing in spring and senesces in late summer and fall sometimes earlier in dry summers. Dry thatch is more flammable than actively growing vegetation, and it composes a large portion of the fine fuel load in the dormant season (fall through early- to mid-spring). In northern climates, snow cover limits thatch drying and shortens the fire season. Typically grasslands can burn any time from March to November, although in mesic grasslands, fuels may be too moist to burn in summer during wet years [23].

Postfire succession varies, in part, due to prefire plant community composition and timing of fires relative to plant phenology [23,62]. Tallgrass prairies were mostly dominated by warm-season grasses, and mixedgrass prairies had varying quantities of warm-season and cool-season grasses. Spring fires tend to stimulate growth of warm-season plants and reduce growth and reproduction of cool-season plants [62]. At Konza Prairie, where cool-season species are only a minor component, tallgrass prairie communities are resilient to fire in any season. Abundance and composition of forbs is dynamic and responds to differences in fire frequency and fire timing, grazing by wild ungulates such as bison, and insect herbivory [23].

Estimates of presettlement fire frequency in grasslands are based on inferences from climate patterns, rate of fine fuel accumulation, time required for woody plants to establish and spread, charcoal in lake sediments, and sometimes from fire-scar chronologies in adjacent savanna and woodland. Rate of fuel accumulation in some grasslands is sufficient to carry fire every year, in others at least 2 years of fuel accumulation is needed, especially in grazed grasslands [23].

Throughout the Great Plains, estimates of historical fire intervals range from 1 to about 35 years (e.g., [35,39,58,62]). Estimates from LANDFIRE succession modeling (table 1) and fire history studies (table A1) suggest mean presettlement fire intervals within this range. Generally, intervals at the long end of this range occurred in the northern and western part of the region, where the climate is relatively cooler and drier, respectively, and shorter intervals generally occurred in warmer areas to the south and areas with more precipitation to the east [17]. In tallgrass prairies, historical mean fire interval estimates are 10 years or less, and in plains grasslands, mean fire interval estimates are 35 years or less [14,35]. Estimates of historical fire intervals in the Northern Great Plains range from about 1 to 30 years (e.g., [15,46]), with longer intervals occurring in areas with dissected topography, shorter intervals on relatively flat topography, and the shortest intervals (1-5 years) in mesic sites [46]. Analyses by Ratajczak et al. (2014) suggest that grasslands in the Central Great Plains transition to shrublands when fire intervals lengthen from 1 to 3 years to 3 to 8 years, and when fire intervals exceed

10 years they transition to woodlands. Fire-free intervals of these lengths allow shrubs and trees to reproduce and reach sufficient size to survive fire [39].

Table 1—Fire interval and severity in prairie and plains grassland communities derived from LANDFIRE succession modeling of Biophysical Settings (BpS) [26].
Fire interval¹ Mean (SD) Fire Severity² Number of BpS in each
fire regime group
Replacement Mixed Low I II III IV V NA ³
2󈞅 years 95 (18) 3 (11) 3 (8) 3 73 0 0 0 0
¹Minimum and maximum historical mean fire interval (labeled "MFRI" in LANDFIRE).
²Percentage of fires in each of 3 fire severity classes. Replacement-severity fires cause >75% kill or top-kill of the upper canopy layer mixed-severity fires cause 26%-75% low-severity fires cause <26% [3,25].
³NA (not applicable) refers to BpS models that did not include fire in simulations.

Grassland fires are typically stand-replacement severity, as defined by LANDFIRE (table 1), because dormant-season fires tend to be complete (

100% consumption of biomass), and growing season fires nearly so (

80-95% consumption of biomass) [14,23]. Fires were more likely mixed-severity where shrubs were present [35]. Growing-season fires may be patchier due to more variable fuel moisture, and presettlement fires may have been patchier due to the effects of grazing by large ungulates such as bison. Several studies on the effects of fire timing on postfire response of grassland species highlight the variability in individual species' response to fire timing in relation to plant phenology (reviewed in [23]). Twidwell et al. (2016) describe the historical range of variation in fire behavior in tallgrass prairies based on a review of nine studies [53].

Over much of the Great Plains, native grasslands have been replaced by agriculture, degraded by overgrazing, or lost to the establishment and spread of woody plants, and now only occur in a small portion of their former range and are so fragmented that historical fire regimes are seriously disrupted. Fire exclusion and reduction of fine fuels from livestock grazing have limited the role of fire in contemporary grasslands on many sites [23,62] however, frequent prescribed fire is widely used in some grassland areas [14,23,62].

Structure and species composition of many native grassland plant communities have been altered by the introduction of nonnative invasive plants and by the spread of native woody plants, some of which alter fuel characteristics such that fire spread and severity is limited in invaded communities [15] (e.g., tall fescue invasion in tallgrass prairie [32]). However, fire simulations suggest that contemporary policies governing prescribed fire management&mdashparticularly those governing maximum allowable wind speeds&mdashhave a greater impact on fire behavior than invasive plants. Magnitude and variability of flame lengths, fireline intensity, and rate of fire spread are reduced in contemporary prescribed fires compared to historical fires. Reductions resulting from fire management policies were greater than reductions caused by tall fescue invasion and were similar to reductions caused by 2 or more decades of juniper encroachment [53].

Fire exclusion during the 20th century has led to an increase in woody plant cover in many grasslands [23]. Contemporary observations in the Central Great Plains suggest that more frequent fires are needed to prevent transition to shrubland, and that management focused on preventing establishment and spread of woody plants is more effective than post hoc restoration efforts. Reintroducing frequent fires after woodlands have established does not restore grasslands in management-relevant time scales (decades) [39].

Some prairies and plains grasslands have a history of management with frequent prescribed fire, typically in spring, although precise timing and frequency vary, as do postfire plant community composition [62]. Common objectives of prescribed burning in grasslands include increasing forage for livestock, reducing abundance of nonnative invasive plants, preventing establishment and spread of woody plants, reducing cover of woody plants, and increasing or restoring native plant diversity on the small, fragmented parcels that remain of these communities [14,23]. Prescribed fire effects depend on many variables such as fire frequency, grassland type, relative abundance of warm-season and cool-season species, successional stage (e.g., time since last fire), grazing history (herbivory), climate and weather, and fire timing relative to plant phenology, such that each fire is unique in its combination of these variables, making comparisons and synthesis of information difficult.

Most prescribed fires are conducted when vegetation is dormant in the early spring or late fall. Tallgrass prairie remnants (e.g., the Flint Hills in Kansas and Oklahoma) are typically burned in late April to promote growth of warm-season grasses for grazing and reduce abundance of nonnative cool-season grasses. Prescribed fire is sometimes used to control nonnative plants by timing burns to coincide with the most vulnerable stage of the target nonnative species while favoring native and desirable species. However, many nonnative species are enhanced by fire. Greater use of growing-season burns&mdashto mimic natural lightning ignitions&mdashhave been advocated for restoration. A burn program that includes burning in multiple seasons is most likely to enhance species diversity [23].

Fire season and fire intensity influence the outcome of prescribed fires intended to reduce cover of woody plants that are already established. Fire season affects the rate of recovery due to seasonal differences in carbohydrate storage [23]. High-intensity fires result in greater mortality and damage of growing parts on sprouting shrubs than typical, low-intensity prescribed fires [52].

Extent of contemporary fires is limited because prescribed fires are conducted most often in spring when fuels are relatively moist, and due to fragmentation from roads, agriculture, and grazing patterns of livestock and wildlife [46]. Large wildfires were largely absent from the Great Plains during the 20th century. However, trends in large wildfire (>400 ha) activity from 1985 to 2014 in the Great Plains indicate that frequency of and total area burned by large wildfires was greater from 2005 to 2014 than from 1985 to 1994. Seasonality of large wildfires was similar between the two time periods [8]. Midlatitude regions of the Great Plains (Wyoming, eastern Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, and South Dakota) are expected to have the greatest increase in annual fire probability with climate change, whereas annual fire probability is expected to decrease in parts of Texas due to fuel limitations [17].

Additional information on fire management considerations in grasslands and rangelands of the Great Plains can be found in the following publications: Eisenberg et al. (2019) [10], Limb et al. (2016) [56], Twidwell et al. (2015) [54], Twidwell et al. (2013) [51], Fuhlendorf et al. (2011) [11], Reid amd Fuhlendorf (2011) [57], Romo (2003) [40].


  • Weisberg, Peter J.
  • Fire history and fire regimes were reconstructed for a 450 km² area in the central western Oregon Cascades, using tree-ring analysis of fire scars and tree origin years at 137 sampled clearcuts. I described temporal patterns of fire frequency, severity, and size, and interpreted topographic influences on fire frequency and severity. I then evaluated the influences of fire history and topography on the development of forest structure. Ninety-four fire episodes were reconstructed for the 521-year period from 1475 to 1996. The average mean fire interval, Weibull median probability interval, and maximum fire interval of 4-ha sites were 97 years, 73 years, and 179 years, respectively. Fire regime has changed over time as a result of climate change, changing anthropogenic influences, and patterns of fuel accumulation related to stand development. Fire frequency and severity patterns were weakly but significantly associated with spatial variation in hillslope position, slope aspect, slope steepness, and elevation. Fire frequency was lower for higher elevations, lower slope positions, and more mesic slope aspects. Fire severity was lower for higher elevations, lower slope positions, more north-facing slopes, and more gradual slopes. Three fire regime classes were defined and mapped. Forest stand structures were strongly associated with stand age, fire history and topography. The number of years since the last high-severity fire was an important predictor for nearly all measured aspects of stand structure. Low-severity fires were important for creating variability in tree diameter sizes, reducing tree density and allowing more rapid diameter growth, and creating stand structures with many large snags and few overstory shade-tolerant trees. However, stands of the same age, and of the same general fire history, often had different structures. Much of this variation was explained by differences in topography. The strongly positive influence of wet aspects and high elevations on the relative dominance of shade-tolerant tree species has been important for shaping the structure of forest stands. Development of old-growth stand attributes (i.e., high stand basal area, maximum tree diameter, variability of tree diameters, and density of large Douglas-fir trees) appears to have been slowest on steeper slopes, wetter aspects, and higher elevations.
  • Forest ecology -- Cascade Range
  • Fire ecology -- Oregon
  • Forest ecology -- Oregon
  • Fire ecology -- Cascade Range
  • Oregon State University
  • PDF derivative scanned at 300 ppi (256 B&W, 256 Grayscale), using Capture Perfect 3.0.82, on a Canon DR-9080C. CVista PdfCompressor 4.0 was used for pdf compression and textual OCR.
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Recent High-Severity Fire Kills Many Large Giant Sequoias

The 2020 Castle Fire (also known as the SQF Complex) started from a lightning strike on August 19 in Sequoia National Forest and later burned into the southern portion of Sequoia National Park. Firefighting teams worked actively to contain the fire, however, a combination of fuels, topography, and weather resulted in high fire severity in some areas. Hazardous and smoky conditions hampered fire control efforts, and many fires burning at once across the state competed for fire-fighting resources.

While assessment of fire impacts is still underway, we know that the fire burned 12 giant sequoia groves in these parks, with differing levels of fire severity depending on their fire history and location. Groves on warmer and drier south-facing slopes, and with no recent fire, sustained extensive mortality of large giant sequoias (over four feet, or 1.2 meters, in diameter). Examples include Homer's Nose and Board Camp groves. Other groves, growing on cooler, more moist north-facing slopes or having recent history of fire had more mixed and moderate fire severity or limited fire spread. One example is the Garfield Grove, where managers did a prescribed burn in 1985.

Overall fire severity was low to moderate, which we anticipate will have positive effects on forest health. However, in the approximately 13 percent of the grove area in the park that burned at high severity, we currently estimate that hundreds of large sequoias were destroyed by fire. In the neighboring Sequoia National Forest and other sequoia groves managed by the State or private organziations, thousands of large sequoias were killed by the fire. These estimates are from aerial surveys and sequoia grove maps additional assessments on the ground are needed to more fully document fire effects in these groves.

Welcome to the Central Coventry Fire District

The Central Coventry Fire District is committed to providing the highest level of public safety services for our community. We protect lives and property through:

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We apply all our professional knowledge and resources to accomplish this while emphasizing professional development, firefighter safety and survival. When called upon the district will provide a rapid and professional response to emergencies and show care and compassion to those in need.

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Contact information for our offices and headquarters.

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Message from the Board President

Fred P. Gralinski

Welcome to the Central Coventry Fire District website. Since our formation in 2006, we have made remarkable improvements and restored the district to a viable and financially stable entity dedicated to the safety and service of our residents. Operating out of two stations. Read More

Message from the Fire Chief

Frank Brown

On behalf of the men and women of Central Coventry Fire District, welcome to our District’s website. Although comprehensive, it is difficult to capture here the spirit, pride, dedication and professionalism with which our team serves our community. We are focused on our mission to minimize the loss of life, property. Read More

Fire history and its relations with land use and climate over three centuries in the central Appalachian Mountains, USA

Correspondence: Charles Lafon, Department of Geography, 3147 TAMU, College Station, TX 77843, USA.

Department of Geography, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, 37996 USA

Department of Geosciences, University of West Georgia, Carrollton, GA, 30118 USA

Department of Geography, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, 77843 USA

Department of Geography, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, 77843 USA

Correspondence: Charles Lafon, Department of Geography, 3147 TAMU, College Station, TX 77843, USA.

Department of Geography, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, 37996 USA

Department of Geosciences, University of West Georgia, Carrollton, GA, 30118 USA


Our aims were to: (1) reconstruct the fire history of pine–oak forests in the central Appalachian Mountains, USA, with an annual resolution over as long a time period as possible using dendroecological techniques (2) estimate the frequency of fire in the study area before the fire-suppression era and (3) investigate how variations in land use and climate have affected the occurrence of fire in the study area.


Temperate forests at three study sites within the central Appalachian Mountains, Virginia, USA.


Cross-sections were taken (sawn) from fire-scarred pine (Pinus L.) trees growing in pine-dominated patches within a hardwood forest matrix. Dendroecological techniques were used to date the scars, which were used to calculate fire intervals. A variety of analyses were carried out: Pearson correlation analysis, to investigate whether fire activity varied over time (under changing land uses) Kruskal–Wallis analysis, to examine whether fire frequency varied spatially (among study sites) chi-square analysis, to test whether scar seasonality changed temporally and superposed epoch analysis, to explore whether fire activity was associated with interannual climatic variations in moisture, as characterized by the Palmer drought severity index (PDSI).


Fire scars dated back to the 17th or early 18th century (depending on site). The filtered composite fire interval, considered to be a particularly reliable estimate of fire interval, averaged between 6 and 8 years. Fire frequency remained fairly constant from the beginning of the record until effective fire suppression began in the early 20th century, after which burning virtually ceased. Fire occurred more frequently at the easternmost site, which was located in the Blue Ridge province of the Appalachian Mountains, than at the other two sites, in the Ridge and Valley province. Scar seasonality showed no discernible trend over time. Fire was associated with low PDSI (i.e. dry years) at two of the study sites.

Main conclusions

Fire occurred frequently at these central Appalachian study sites during the period of aboriginal depopulation that preceded European colonization, and throughout the periods of European settlement and industrialization (with mining, logging and railroads) that followed. Our results match those from other fire-history sites in the central and southern Appalachian Mountains, and suggest that fire was an important factor influencing vegetation development in the temperate forests covering this region.

Must Reads: Who started the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Library? Susan Orlean investigates in her new book

Susan Orlean has an upcoming book about the L.A. Public Library and the mysteries surrounding the devastating 1986 fire at the Central Library. She displays a book that was damaged in the fire.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Susan Orlean is photographed in the Central Library’s second-floor rotunda. Above her is the bronze Zodiac Chandelier.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Susan Orlean visits the Central Library’s second floor, with the rotunda above her.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Susan Orlean pauses in the arts and music section at the Los Angeles Central Library.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Firefighters battle a blaze at the L.A. Central Library downtown on April 29, 1986.

(Jack Gaunt / Los Angeles Times)

Smoke billows from the Los Angeles Central Library during the blaze that raged out of control for hours on April 29, 1986.

(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Fire Capt. Don Stukey probes damage after the devastating fire at the L.A. Central Library in 1986.

(Boris Yaro / Los Angeles Times)

Smoke billows from the Los Angeles Central Library.

Harry Peak, who claimed he’d set the fire at the Los Angeles Central Library and then disavowed that claim, emerges from jail after the district attorney declined to file charges against him in 1987.

(Jack Gaunt / Los Angeles Times)

A worker takes in the scene of damaged and destroyed books piled in the fiction room of the Los Angeles Central Library after a massive fire on April 29, 1986.

On May 3, 1986, Adolfo Ramirez and Victor Davis carry empty boxes to be filled with works to be saved after the fire at the Central Library.

The interior of the rotunda of the Los Angeles Central Library on Nov. 12, 1986, during renovation after the fire.

Water–damaged books from the Los Angeles Central Library are lowered into a huge vaccuum chamber at the McDonnell Douglas Astronautic Co. plant in Huntington Beach on May 12, 1986. The boxed books, which had been in cold storage since the library fire to prevent mildew, were thawed and eventually dried in the chamber, which is normally used to test space satellites.

Curiosity is Susan Orlean’s superpower.

Hundreds of L.A. firefighters fought the devastating downtown’s Central Library on April 29, 1986. Thousands of people contributed to the Save the Books campaign afterward. Millions heard the news that the library was burning and then that it was caused by arson. But more than three decades later, only Orlean was asking who did it and why, and wondering whether anyone today should care. In a reverse “Fahrenheit 451,” Orlean took a fire and turned it into a book.

Titled — aptly and ingeniously — “The Library Book,” it tells the story of the mysterious fire that burned 400,000 books while also tracing Orlean’s love of libraries, from trips with her mother to taking her son. Along the way, she relates the unexpectedly colorful history and future of the L.A. Public Library.

“My first interest was writing a book about the day-to-day life of a big city library. I could have done that anywhere,” she said over lunch after we visited the library together. “I liked the idea of doing it in L.A., out of this contrarian idea that people don't associate libraries with L.A., which made it kind of delectable.”

That said, the 1986 fire (forgive me) was the spark.

A longtime staff writer for the New Yorker, Orlean had begun living in Los Angeles part of the year (she and her husband also maintain a home in New York). While exploring the city’s institutions, she visited the flagship of the L.A. Public Library and learned of its catastrophic fire. Although no people were seriously injured, the fire destroyed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more, causing $22 million in damages — more than $50 million today. It remains the largest library fire ever in America.

“This is an amazing story,” she said. As we walked through the library, Orlean — petite, stylish and with electric auburn hair — was greeted by staffers she’d gotten to know during her research.

Tapping a concrete wall, she explained where the fire had started, in the stacks. Built as two secure concrete chutes within the original 1926 building, the stacks held hundreds of thousands of books and were connected by a catwalk for librarians. After the fire started — leaping across the catwalk from the first stack to the second — the chutes served as dual furnaces, books trapped inside with the fire.

“Their covers burst like popcorn. Pages flared and blackened and then sprang away from their bindings, a ream of sooty scraps soaring on the updraft. The fire flashed through fiction, consuming it as it traveled,” Orlean writes in her book. “It reached for the cookbooks. The cookbooks burned up. The fire scrambled to the sixth tier and then to the seventh. Every book in its path bloomed with flame.”

If you, like me, care about books, reading her brilliant, awful description of the conflagration feels like watching a snuff film.

Orlean agrees. “There's something that we feel deeply about books that we don't feel about other objects — you know, it’s an object!” It was as if she were trying to convince herself. “And nowadays, it's an object that can be replaced pretty easily. Even so. There is something about it that feels raw and vicious and aggressive.”

She is a lifelong journalist, known for her careful, in-person research, showcased in her New Yorker pieces and books, including “Rin Tin Tin,” a history of the Hollywood dog “The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup” and (despite Charlie Kaufman’s fabrications in “Adaptation”) “The Orchid Thief.” So I was surprised to hear what she said next. It was so mystical.

“I think we have some association with books that feels like there was a soul in there,” Orlean said. “That there's a being in there, whether it's because writers have poured themselves onto the pages, whatever it is, I think there's something ineffable, mysterious about what makes books special, and I'm glad of that.”

This is one of the underlying ideas of “The Library Book” — that books, as both objects and ideas, are essential to the human project that libraries are a vital destination that holds them safe.

So who would want to torch one?

That was a question L.A. authorities thought they had answered on Feb. 27, 1987, when they arrested 28-year-old Harry Peak on suspicion of arson. Peak was released three days later after the district attorney declined to file charges against him.

It is a fine mystery: Fire officials said there was an arsonist Peak claimed, then disavowed, responsibility for the fire no one else has ever been arrested in connection with the blaze. Whether Peak was the actual culprit is one of the central questions of Orlean’s book.

Orlean describes Peak as “the consummate storyteller.” Handsome and underemployed, he was a little bit rootless and quite a big talker some news reports called him a part-time actor. He matched a sketch of the suspect. According to some (but not all) accounts, he was downtown at the time.

“There were two big storytellers in the book,” Orlean tells me. “One was Harry Peak and the other was Charles Lummis, who was an incredibly admirable and important figure in the history of LA.”

It’s an unexpected pairing. Lummis was the first city editor of the L.A. Times and founded the Southwest Museum more pertinent to this story, he was also L.A.’s city librarian, a tenure Orlean details in the book. His hand-built stone home, which is now a museum on the southern edge of Highland Park, was known for the rowdy parties — he called them “noises” — he threw there. By any measure, Lummis was a significant figure in the history of Los Angeles, while Peak, apart from being the arson suspect, passed through barely leaving a mark. But, Orlean says, Lummis “was a bit of a fabulist, and he would tell stories that his friends didn't always believe.” So did Peak.

“We tell stories to ourselves, to each other,” Orlean says, as though forgiving the fabricators. “It's the lifeblood of being human.”

Perhaps she is sympathetic to the tale-spinners, because to be a writer in 2018 means to side with art. Right now, looking at this, you could Google “Harry Peak” or “library fire” and easily read the nuggets the internet spits out at you. Orlean’s project is bigger. It has to be.

“I think that one of the great burdens of being a nonfiction writer is this feeling that anybody could go look this stuff up,” she said. “I'm not delivering any information that no one else can access. I've gone on a trip to the pyramids and you're sitting around the dinner table and people say, ‘How was your trip? What were the pyramids like?’ Well, they could go look it up online, but that's not the point.”

Pyramids in Egypt or a 32-year-old news story in Los Angeles, the point is elevating the narrative so it tells us something about ourselves or the world, making it something worth noticing. “The history of the library is fascinating, and reminding people that libraries are kind of cool and interesting is exciting,” Orlean said. “I got very charged up about it.”

She admits that editors are rarely convinced by her story ideas on the surface. “There is some kind of pleasure that I find in saying, ‘I know you think that this couldn't possibly be interesting, but it really is. Give me a minute, I'll persuade you.’ That awareness that I'm having to prove to people every sentence of the way that this is something worth their time.”

“Seriously, this is super interesting. No, no, wait, wait, no. There's more,” she demonstrated. “And then there's more, and you're not going to believe. That's how it feels to me, that I'm tugging on somebody’s sleeve saying, ‘Wait, wait, one more second. Let me just tell you one more thing, you're not going to believe it.’”

From where we sat at lunch, we could see the library building. I asked our server if she knew that it was the site of the biggest library fire in American history. She didn’t.

“Ooh, I just got the chills,” the server said. She turned to Orlean. “And you wrote a book about it? What’s it called? What caused the fire?”

For generations of Angelenos, this will be the first they’ve heard of the fire, the massive fight to contain it, the thousands of books frozen in an effort to preserve them, the water damage, the stop-start effort to restore and expand the library where its visionary architect put it at the corner of 5th and Flower in downtown Los Angeles, of the man who may have set it aflame, maybe even of libraries around the world destroyed by fire through the ages, taking untold stories with them.

It’s all there. They just have to borrow “The Library Book.”

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All Over Albany

Check out this slideshow of photos Sebastien took at the abandoned Central Warehouse in downtown Albany. There are some creepy (and oddly beautiful) scenes in there.

The building has changed hands twice this decade. In 2002 a company called Albany Assets bought it for $800k. And then in 2007 it was sold for $1.4 million to a group called CW Montgomery LLC, which apparently planned to eventually redevelop the building into some sort of mixed-use project.

Of the Central Warehouse Jerry Jennings said last year: That's one of the biggest eyesores I have here." Demolition of the building reportedly would cost $1.5 million.

Anyone know anything about the history of this building?

Update: check out the comment Steve posted about the history of this place.

And here are more pics by Kim, Bennett and Paul.

Find It

Central Warehouse
Colonie St and Montgomery St
Albany, NY 12207


Central Warehouse was built in 1927 as a “cold and dry” storage facility in the days before retailers and distributors maintained such facilities on their own. The 400,000-square-foot behemoth once held enough frozen foods to feed the Capital District a few times over, but it's been largely vacant since at least 1990. The building has been controversial since the 1980s, when a businessman and philanthropist named Richard Gerrity owned it. The deeply religious Gerrity painted a huge “Year of the Bible” sign on the building in 1983. The redecoration drew the wrath of the state Department of Transportation, which argued that the sign's size made it a clear violation of the federal Highway Beautification Act. The DOT finally prevailed over Gerrity's C.W. Associates in an out-of-court agreement, and the sign was removed in 1987. C.W. Associates declared bankruptcy in 1995, and the building passed to Trustco Bank, which acquired the property at a foreclosure auction in 1996 before selling it to Frank Crisafulli, a retired owner of a food distribution company. Crisafulli bought the in 1997 for $1 plus back taxes that added up to $120,000 he sold it to the first owner you mention above.

. said Steve Barnes on Apr 10, 2009 at 2:33 PM | link

. said Mary on Apr 10, 2009 at 2:36 PM | link

Thanks for posting the pics (from my Twitter?).

Let me link to Kim and Bennett pictures as well, we had a really good time exploring this place together on this perfect day, and we have different shooting styles.

I was contacted by a few urban explorers since then for "directions" (Paul, Bob, Michael, Justin, etc.), and I think they will post what they have once it's ready. I like that they shot the exact same doorway as we did a week earlier. Do you know how many doors there are in this building? :) A lot.

We are definitely curious about the history and anecdotes associated to the warehouse. When it was operating at full capacity, it must have been quite the beehive.

. said -S on Apr 10, 2009 at 2:37 PM | link

This site is awesome. It always picks out the exact, specific things I'm curious about. I remember back when this building it had stuff painted on it. (Never remembered what, I was a little kid!) There's gotta be something useful that this building can do other than be demolished. Sure, it's an eyesore, but can't that be fixed?

. said Justin on Apr 10, 2009 at 2:43 PM | link

Fortunately or unfortunately, the Central Warehouse will be an eyesore for a while yet. It costs much more to rehab than it would be worth, and costs much more to tear down than the lot would be worth (I believe I remember reading that demolition would cost about $4 million and the lot would only be worth around $1 million).

It would take a philanthropist or massive subsidies/grants to make any work on this place financially sensible. Which is sad, because it's one of the first things that people see when they're coming into Albany from 90 or 787.

. said B on Apr 10, 2009 at 2:49 PM | link

They should knock it down and put in a park. With swing set, a volleyball court and an amphitheater. And then do Shakespeare in the park.

. said abby on Apr 10, 2009 at 2:53 PM | link

@Steve: thanks, great infos! I wish somebody had a picture of this "Year of the Bible" sign. $120,000 in 1997, wow. Someone should buy it just for the fantastic view of Albany you get from the roof :)

. said -S on Apr 10, 2009 at 2:53 PM | link

When will AOA stop circle jerking every time Sebastien takes a picture?

. said the fuj. on Apr 10, 2009 at 3:05 PM | link

How come every time S takes a photo there is a post about it?

. said anon on Apr 10, 2009 at 3:06 PM | link

When it stops being so gratifying, fuj. Stop being jealous and join in on the action, unf unf unf.

. said B on Apr 10, 2009 at 3:16 PM | link

At least before the economic slowdown, there were redevelopment plans in the works for the warehouse. Interesting thing is that there's a nearly identical building in Toronto that was turned into condos and retail.

From a Times Union story I wrote in 2007:

"A group calling itself CW Montgomery LLC purchased the building in May for $1.4 million and already has met with city officials to discuss its plans. CW Montgomery is associated with Axiom Capital, a downtown Albany investment firm. Charles Cronin, Axiom's founder, this week declined interview requests.

Michael Yevoli, Albany commissioner of planning and development, said the investors are at the "very preliminary" stages of deciding just how to adapt the building.

There is, however, a successful redevelopment model for investors to follow: A nearly identical warehouse in Toronto, built a year earlier than Central Warehouse and believed to have been constructed by the same developer.

Converted into a mall and residential complex in 1983, the complex, Queen's Quay Terminal, is credited with sparking development in its lakefront neighborhood.

Albany officials hope the Central Warehouse could do the same here. Saying the redevelopment of such a prominent building could send a potent symbolic message, they are especially pleased the investors are eyeing the development of something central Albany sorely lacks: retail."

. said Chris Churchill on Apr 10, 2009 at 3:16 PM | link

@thefuj: I don't do bar mitzvahs or weddings, but I should totally do circle jerking pics, thanks for the tip. Want in?

. said -S on Apr 10, 2009 at 3:23 PM | link

Circle jerking is pretty much what I was always afraid was going on in that warehouse.

Instead of hating him for going someplace I wouldn't I was thinking of making a request. Could you do the abandoned Bab-O factory next, Sebastien?

. said CJ on Apr 10, 2009 at 3:33 PM | link

@the fuj & anon: I would say it's probably because he is a fantastic photographer and takes amazing photos that give a different perspective on things. His photos are fun, well composed and usually have a great these whether it be an unknown building or a fun game of find the gnome. They also start great discussions in the comments that keep readers/viewers interested and informed. They have obviously posted photos by other photographers as well (ie. Kim) so it's not just him.

The offensive comment is completely unnecessary and surely not in the spirit of this blog. I suggest you take your negativity and stick it elsewhere. Comments like that come off as shear jealousy and make you sound like an idiot.

. said Emma on Apr 10, 2009 at 3:34 PM | link

I read that article Chris, it was great. But it also seems like the property has changed hands multiple times in the last two decades or so, with each new owner saying they want to look into redevelopment, but shunting it off to the next person once they realize what will go into the project. Here's hoping.

. said B on Apr 10, 2009 at 3:40 PM | link

@CJ. if the abandoned Bab-O factory is the building I am thinking of, be aware that it is still owned and occasionally used by the company I work for. We moved from that place only last November up to Troy. Not sure it is the same building but I was told while I worked there by a local that it was once the Bab-O factory. We are now in the old Quandt's Brewery Building (most recent commercial use was as a Boardmans) on River St. which has been a fun place to get to know.

On the Sebastien photo topic. I love that he is so actively documenting the area and find his photography well worth the space it finds on AOA!

. said Bob F. on Apr 10, 2009 at 4:11 PM | link

A friend of mine who works at the Albany Planning Council presented an idea to some committee to turn this warehouse into an aquarium! I love the idea and think it would be a draw to downtown.

. said Karen on Apr 10, 2009 at 4:12 PM | link

@Karen Interesting idea. but the image that passed my mind when I read it was of a big bowl alongside 787 with giant goldfish swimming around in it! Maybe I should stop work and go home!

. said Bob F. on Apr 10, 2009 at 4:19 PM | link

I've been in love with this building for years!

I talked to a few people I met while riding my bike around the area back in '07 and heard that the city was looking to reconnect Colonie Street (currently there road is bisected by railroad tracks) and that Israeli investors had been through and were involved in buying the property. Both claims are totally unverified (the study to reconnect Colonie street would be easy to verify) so take with a grain of salt.

More importantly, could you imagine living there?? You could walk back home from Wolff's after a couple giant mugs of Optimator!

. said -luke on Apr 10, 2009 at 4:21 PM | link

Oh man, I would love to see that building used as an aquarium instead of apartments/condos. Plus, I'd love to see an aquarium in Albany someday. I hope your friend's idea goes far :)

. said Paul on Apr 10, 2009 at 4:24 PM | link

@Bob: I've to say, I don't know the Bab-O factory. Update: CJ explained to me: the hulking beast on Broadway, just south of the U-Haul building and highly visible along 787, is the former Bab-O (B.T. Babbitt) factory.

If it's a factory and there is pigeon crap by the metric ton, then yes, I'm sure we will try to explore it. Winter was a bit long, exploration will resume shortly. In the meantime, no booby-trapping the place, thanks.

. said -S on Apr 10, 2009 at 4:40 PM | link

Some of the photos look like the interior of the Titanic without water. creepy!

. said Pam on Apr 10, 2009 at 4:43 PM | link

Leave it up, rehab it with the money we get from Albany police officer's drunk driving fines. Tear down 787. Turn the empty space where the highway used to be into the riverfront park it should have been. Build a minor league baseball stadium with the newly done-over warehouse as the backdrop. Build stores and an extended downtown around it, a la Coors Field in Denver and Camden Yards in Baltimore. You're Welcome.

. said Save Pine Hills on Apr 10, 2009 at 4:57 PM | link

@ Save Pine Hills - add in the Schenectady cop's fines and the financial crisis could end.

. said Barold on Apr 10, 2009 at 7:15 PM | link

haha, i just got cuffed by apd for checking out the insides of the buildings.
thankfully i didn't get arrested, even though nothing would materialize since the owners are awol.

. said andrew on Apr 10, 2009 at 7:28 PM | link

I live close to this place, have walked passed it a million times. and never gotten in, so thanks for the pic, now I can put my curiosity to rest.
@Luke. I'm one of the lucky fellows that does live close enough to the Biergarten to walk it home, it makes me love myself for moving to the bottom of Clinton a few years ago.
Has anyone spyed any gnomes in the building. and whats up with them, I havent heard lately.
There is also a real rad church a block away from there (N.Pearl), complete with a sweet rectory. you can barely see either of them now due to all the ivy.
Thanks again for the read and pics.

. said JVG on Apr 10, 2009 at 8:02 PM | link

@abby hahahaha nice Parks & Recreation quote from last night. well played.

. said leigh on Apr 10, 2009 at 8:24 PM | link

"The Federal Highway Beautification Act. " Why would a "Year of the Bible sign" draw the state's "wrath?"
I should have known the government was somehow responsible for this eyesore. But hey, I suppose a massive vacant building resembling something in the slums of Sarajevo is better than a maintained and functioning building with a sign offending some atheist somewhere. What a disgrace.

. said Luke on Apr 10, 2009 at 10:23 PM | link

I hope you're kidding, andrew. :(

As andrew said - Don't be stupid, people! Even if the building is not in use, it's still trespassing, and you're taking a risk going onto the property or into the buildings. Not to mention the plethora of other dangers that can lie inside these kinds of buildings. Don't do it if you don't know what you're getting into!

I'm not sure why AOA even posted this complete with a location map and everything. It's just going to get people in trouble, draw attention to the building, and get the place sealed up, which totally works against urbexers anyway. I appreciate the link to my photos, but this isn't the way I'd prefer them to be referenced.

. said Paul on Apr 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM | link

Surprise, surprise, another vacant building in Albany with MIA owners. It's tempting to demand these guys live in the buildings they purchase for a little while, but maybe I've seen the movie, The Super, one time too many.

I'm a little envious of the urban explorers. Great pictures!

. said Carrie on Apr 11, 2009 at 12:07 AM | link

@CJ and -S I think I know that Bab-O building and no, it is not the same place where I worked until November. is this the building you refer to?

This building was on the opposite side of the tracks from where I worked. Before the grade crossing was closed, it would have been the corner of 4th Ave and Broadway.

. said Bob F. on Apr 11, 2009 at 7:52 AM | link

@Bob F. -- I assume all these buildings are owned by somebody, and trespass is trespass, so you don't need to worry about me going in. I have too much respect for the power of decay to want to find out if a floor is intact.And just stopping in that neighborhood with a camera tends to bring unwelcome attention.

@JVG -- I would love to be able to shoot even the outside of that beautiful church on N. Pearl, but ditto on the neighborhood conditions.

. said CJ on Apr 11, 2009 at 8:04 AM | link

Actually what's really to blame are absentee owners, the place has not been "in use" in years. It has changed hands from one speculating real estate developer to another, and in the meantime the interior crumbles more and more, meaning it costs more and more to rehab it, meaning the cost:profit ratio shrinks further every year. Because it has been left abandoned for so long, it is no longer profitable to either rehab or tear down the structure. The Central Warehouse will be with us in its current incarnation for a long time unless someone with a lot of money to lose intervenes.

. said B on Apr 11, 2009 at 8:40 AM | link

I remember when they closed the place down but still kept the cooling machinery running. The city was pretty certain the pipes had cracked with age and the only thing preventing a cloud of ammonia gas was a layer of ice.

Sure, you could make it into condo's, but would you or anyone you know really want to live there? That part of Albany is ROUGH.

. said Eric on Apr 11, 2009 at 12:22 PM | link

Great photos, Sebastien. I love this urban decay stuff.

. said James Cronen on Apr 11, 2009 at 1:02 PM | link

@CJ: we checked the Bab-O building today, and it's seriously locked. You would have to do more than "trespassing" to get in.

. said -S on Apr 13, 2009 at 1:17 AM | link

If one would want to get into this "Bab-O" building, I'd suggest, in this order: a crowbar, a bottle jack, thermite, and a great lawyer.

. said B on Apr 14, 2009 at 12:33 AM | link

Thanks for posting these. The difference between an Eyesore and an icon? Age. The building has been a part of the Albany skyline for over 75 years. With a creative redevelopment scenario, and attention to detail for exterior rennovations, this building could be the crown jewel of albany's few adaptive re-use buildings.

. said daleyplanit on May 20, 2009 at 12:45 PM | link

I ran into a guy who was entering the fence around the Central Warehouse this morning. I asked him what the story was, and he told me that his company Mobile Metal owns the place and they going to tear it down in "about six weeks." Very sad. It's an eyesore, but for some reason I still love it.

Mobile Metal must of filed with the city to demolish the building, maybe I can find out more concrete details tomorrow at City Hall.

Back when I had a life I wrote briefly about crowdsourcing a development here in the city ( and although I explicitly mention new construction, I always pictured doing a massive rehab at the Central Warehouse. Something about that building screams potential, and that rail line oof, big project but it could be amazing!

. said Luke Gucker on Oct 13, 2009 at 4:14 PM | link

Tearing down the Central Warehouse?, that's big news, it's a huge huge building. Please keep us posted, we will go take photos of the demolition.

. said -S on Oct 13, 2009 at 5:16 PM | link

So, end of November this place is supposed to go down. I'll believe it when I see it the building has been through several hands in the last two decades with no change, except for the additional deterioration that comes with time.

"tear[ing] it down" would almost certainly require a demo, I can't see how it could be dismantled like the Wellington was. The top eight floors have exterior walls two feet thick.

I'm not sure how I would feel about losing the Warehouse. There's no hope of it ever being rehabilitated not only is it just too far gone, it's not the right type of building. There are only four windows on most of the floors, they're portholes more than windows. It's an eyesore, and something better could definitely go in the space, but I think we all know that anything built there would just be a pet project of Jerry's to funnel funds from the city to his friends' pockets. It's almost worth keeping around in its current state as a sort of reminder, of many things.

. said B on Oct 26, 2009 at 3:43 PM | link

I've always thought someone should set up scaffolding for a week and let the people of Albany decorate the building however we see fit. Rinse and repeat every few years to keep things interesting. Then fund-raise for the cause and remodel the inside floor by floor into an art gallery.

It would be good all around Albany gets the building completely graffiti'd for free by locals, it changes from an eyesore to an art installation, the move is picked up by newspapers across the country, and overnight Albany becomes the forward-thinking artistic center of the world.

Or just tear it down. whichever.

. said Emily on Oct 26, 2009 at 4:32 PM | link

Demolition. A total surprise. It seems to me it would cost more to tear it down and rebuild than simple build on an open site. Really odd - I rally want to hear more. Last news on the building I was aware of was that a NYC-based developer was looking into making a go of redevelopment.

. said daleyplanit on Oct 26, 2009 at 5:04 PM | link

@daleyplanit: it's a rumor for now. My secret hope is that they blast it. But not until the "Ghost Hunters" get in. Then *boom*.

. said -S on Oct 26, 2009 at 6:26 PM | link

Ok, I got another rumor update. I ran into more guys coming and going from the warehouse and when I asked one of them about demolition he said that it wasn't in the plans since the building is in "great structural shape." He said they were just cleaning the whole place out. Kinda frustrating getting conflicting stories.

I apologize for the unreliable nature of this information, I just walk past the building where I park if I drive to work. I'm still hoping to get to the building department in city hall and see what I can dig up, but I've been kinda busy recently.

I can't really see them demo'ing this place. It would be well over $1M to do, not to mention the potential disruption to the very nearby rail lines. And for what? A few acres in an isloated corner of the Industrial North End? One Mil plus for 2K worth of bare land?

This the kinda project I wouldn't feel bad sicking BBL on, at least they could pull it off.

. said Luke Gucker on Oct 27, 2009 at 11:30 AM | link

I have 10-15 "dream propeties" I've been keeping tabs on that I'm dying to see redeveloped.

- The Central Warehouse
- Jefferson/Swan St. Firehouse
- New Scotland Armory
- Third Precinct Police Station, 222 North Pearl Street
- 755 Madison Avenue
- the corners of Washington and Quail
- 140 Hamilton St.
- 15-25 Warren St Warehouse.

. said daleyplanit on Oct 27, 2009 at 12:52 PM | link

stay away from 222NP, i'm gonna make that my house someday soon ).

. said jvg on Oct 27, 2009 at 5:26 PM | link

This building is currently on fire.

. said Dan Currier on Oct 22, 2010 at 5:00 PM | link

Old does not mean historic and interesting and different does not mean it can have a successful future.

A ugly hulk of concrete in a location that has zero attraction.

The list of buildings in Albany that should be demolished is huge and the best approach would be to make them green space until the areas become attractive. We can allso thank the fools who put 787 next to the river front property.

. said geek on Oct 22, 2010 at 5:14 PM | link

I got to see the Central Warehouse close up on a regular basis because my own family has a warehouse in that area, for at least 60 years or so now. While growing up I actually saw the CW building as a big, mysterious, working mountain of concrete. A dusty, dirty, industrial petroleum- smelling area in which I never quite let my guard down. While in the warehouse district, I new first hand how quickly the seamy streets could turn on someone -especially a kid. My father had a whole flatbed truck vanish one night down there in the row. Even his own personal truck one afternoon. Odd how things could just disappear where you'd be hard pressed to see a human on the street. Kind of Twilight Zoneish and other worldly. Dry ,uninspired, unchanged and unaffected by the goings on of real fleshy people just a few blocks away. So, it is odd to me these boring walls could some how have attached to the emotions of my youth. I had always wondered what was the interior like. What did they do in there? Why don't I ever see anyone coming and going from it? So powerful, secretive and creepy- the Central Warehouse, the neighborhood, and the fire.

. said DLBH on Oct 22, 2010 at 10:06 PM | link

This building is loaded with asbestos! This was a dangerous fire and this building needs to be sealed and dismantled.

. said r marcley on Oct 22, 2010 at 10:15 PM | link

Wish I had known more about this building before yesterday. I have some interesting musings for thie forum.

Firstly, asbestos in the concrete. would this asbestos thermally protect the underlying steel girders in the massive concrete columns that support the innards of the building? I am not an engineer, but if the asbestos helps the structure maintain its integrity, then the fire will merely remove all debris, old insulation, paint, etc, right?

Second, Central Warehouse has been compared to Worcester Cold Storage, which to me doesn't seem fair. A trap for firemen, yes, for sure. But the structure itself, based on S's photos I've seen, is certainly different from the Worcester structure's wooden upper levels. Central Warehouse obviously appears to be entirely of steel-reinforced concrete on a massive scale. I've read a Homeland Security report on the Worcester tragedy online, and that structure was brick & mortar and mostly massive wood beams and support columns, except for the lower two levels.

Third, maybe the most important, is that if the structure retains its integrity after the fire burns itself out, then this might make for an interesting development option. The fire would have done the dirty work, removing debris and leaving ash to be removed. As far as the asbestos in the concrete, that should be able to be encapsulated with epoxy or something, right? Look at Toronto's Queen's Quay Terminal, built a year earlier, by the same developer as Central Warehouse. Upper floors (Cold Storage) could be converted into lofts, while the lower levels could house retaurants, boutiques and other retail stores. This could really improve dowtown Albany and add to the attrction of the area as a whole.

. said JT on Oct 23, 2010 at 2:31 PM | link

@Geek: "the best approach would be to make them green space until the areas become attractive"
Good approaches are not lacking, it's the cost of even demolishing the building that was prohibitive. We shall see now.

@JT: "Upper floors (Cold Storage) could be converted into lofts"

Unfortunately, I don't think that's possible. We thought about it the first time we visited the place, but the walls in the cold storage levels are *thick*. Like really, really thick. Carving new windows would be difficult, and the thermal inertia of such lofts would be uncomfortable (I live in a brick house myself).

And you are right, there was no wood beam at the CW. Some levels though were full of wood, old paper, very flamable stuff. It's a really gigantic place.

. said -S on Oct 23, 2010 at 11:26 PM | link

Does anyone have any information about who the developer was that originally designed and built the Central Warehouse? I believe it was the same developers that built the warehouse in Toronto that many have drawn parallels too but I can't seem to find anywhere just who they were.

Any help would be much appreciated!

. said Ben R on Nov 2, 2010 at 10:01 AM | link

Albany needs to start getting in touch with absentee building owners and either make them take care of the buildings they own or give up ownership. Why should those of us who live in the city have to look at these rundown pieces of crap while these people live out of the area. Another thing is that I have never been to an area that is so close to a river/water source but instead built a highway where a vibrant riverfront "SHOULD" be. 787 may have been the worst idea ever but I am sure that some kind of stupid politics and agendas were served by building 787.

. said Mark on Feb 4, 2011 at 1:07 AM | link

Mark, I don't like seeing these buildings sitting vacant just to further decay either. But I guess the suggestion is for the city to take ownership? What would it then do? It's really doubtful that any kind of renovation of the Central Warehouse makes financial sense, and that goes for many other sites (Harmony Mills and Victory Mills are shining exceptions). So the city then fronts the bill for demolition? That seems like a raw deal for taxpayers at least with an owner there are some taxes being paid. I suppose the city could try to auction it off but I see a repetitive cycle happening there.

Instead of taking ownership maybe the city could have the authority to sue building owners who don't keep up basic maintenance. Like in many other areas of our society, the only way you'll get these people to do anything is by threatening their bottom line.

Totally agreed with you on the riverfront, BTW, I would love to see the stretch of 787 by Broadway turned into a tunnel.

. said B on Feb 4, 2011 at 10:05 AM | link

With respect to Ben R's question

of three-and-a-half years ago!

I believe that the Central Warehouse may originally have been built by what was, in 1916, the Albany Terminal Warehouse, Company. My great-grandfather, John F. O'Brien, who was also a New York Secretary of State in the early years of the last century, was its President. He died in 1927, the same year that the first comment on this page, by Steve Barnes, gives for the Warehouse's construction. By 1930, the organization's name had changed slightly, to the Albany Terminal and Security Warehouse Co. My grandfather, John L. O'Brien, Sr, who died in 1980, was its President. This fits with my memory that the Warehouse was the part of his patrimony that my grandfather chose to emphasize.

I am preparing for my first trip stopping in Albany

since the death of my grandmother in the mid-'Eighties. My grandparents' house in Loudonville is now Saint Francis House at Siena College.

. said Eugene B. O'Brien on Jun 24, 2014 at 4:12 PM | link

I believe this warehouse was built possibly by APW of albany.
American Perforated Wrapping Paper Ltd. APW owner was the inventer of rolled Toilet paper., as well as making many of the early toilet paper holders. These were very ornate and are collected to this day. Reason i came across this is that APW also had a mill to make the pulp in Sheet Harbour Nova Scotia where I live. Also i have found reference that in June 1925 a ship carrying this pulp from Sheet Harbour went to APW in Albany and was the first ocean going ship to reach Albany. So far have not found the name of the ship but would sure love to know.
Yes this building may be a eyesore but there is a lot of history behind it. And does it look the same as it once did? I have no idea. But what it could tell if it could speak.

. said wendy on Nov 6, 2015 at 3:15 PM | link

I never knew this building existed until I rode by it on the Amtrak on the way to Utica this am. I was immediately taken by it haunting, creepy, and intriguing. I'm inspired to write a ghost story based off this gem. I'm sure there's some great stories behind this place.

. said Bobbi on Mar 24, 2017 at 10:21 PM | link

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The Central Fire - History



by John Joseph O'Brien

. The people living in our great city take many things for granted. Almost every day of their lives, they see some phase of our city government in operation. Many of us, I am sure, have often seen the fire apparatus rushing to the scene of a conflagration many too, perhaps, have often taken this same action for granted. The story of how the fire engines are dispatched to a fire will, I believe, prove interesting to the reader who will endeavor to bear with us while we present this treatise.

Many years ago when San Francisco was still in its youth, on October 5, 1863 to be exact, David Scannell, then Chief of the S.F.F.D., took the occasion to thank the Board of Supervisors for its prompt action in drawing to completion the plans for the Fire Alarm and Police Telegraph. [1] Up until that time the fire alarms were run from the old bell tower at 9 Brenham Place, which was located at Portsmouth Square.

Upon the inauguration of the new Charter, January 8, 1900, the Fire Alarm and Police Telegraph was superseded by a new department created as the Department of Electricity. [5] During this year the department received a total of 864 alarms of which 473 were first, 16 second, 5 third, and 370 still alarms. The number of police messages handled was 114,526. [6] Also during this first year of operation under the Department of Electricity, the alarm system had in operation the following equipment:

The damage is itemized in the lines to follow:

1. Central office of the Department, City Hall, including all records - $40,000. 2. Damage to underground system - $40,000. 3. Overhead construction - $35,000. 4. Engine house equipment - $18,500. 5. Fire boxes - $16,500. 6. Police boxes - $15,000 7. Central Fire Alarm Office (Brenham Pl.) - $7,500. 8. Police station equipment - $4,800. [8]

The alarm office to be located at the City Hall was never actually occupied. In this paper we shall indicate that it was the second home of the fire alarm, however, because if the disaster did not take place in 1906, then the City Hall would have been the permanent home of the central fire alarm office. Since this location was meant to be permanent, we can say at least that the proposed location at the City Hall was to be the second home of the fire alarm system and said location deserves recognition by being listed as the second of the five locations occupied by the fire alarm system from its inception to the present day. We shall speak of the other locations occupied by the central fire alarm office shortly.

Following the fire and earthquake, the Central Fire Alarm Station was moved to a house located at 2032 Steiner Street. This place was a two story frame building. It was a fire hazard and was found to be totally unsatisfactory.

Next, the Central Fire Alarm Station was moved from the Steiner Street address and was set up on the second floor of a Class "C" brick building located at 55 Fulton Street. This location was likewise found to be inadequate. Permanent offices were always the goal sought by the Department of Electricity officials.

During the Fiscal Year of 1914 - 1915, the Department of Electricity manufactured and completely installed the electrical equipment at the new Central Fire Alarm Station in Jefferson square. The station is properly located at Turk and Octavia streets. The building was dedicated on February 28, 1915. Since all of the electrical equipment for the new station was manufactured in the Department's own shop and can truly be said to be homemade, it certainly represents the results of a task that is a credit to home industry.

The cut over of all working lines from the old station at 55 Fulton Street to the new station in Jefferson Square was accomplished with remarkable ease and efficiency by the underground department under the direction of Mr. Ralph W. Wiley, Engineer of Underground Construction. The entire transfer of all working lines from the old station to the new was accomplished in three minutes. At no time was a single line, engine house or fire alarm box out of service or inoperative.[10]

In order to give a picture of the worth and significance of the present alarm office, I shall quote from an article by Mr. Chester L. Bailliette, Chief Operator of the system in 1931, and appearing in the Municipal Record for July of that year.

"There is one building in San Francisco upon which disaster must never fall, and to that end has been protected by every precaution that engineering could devise it is a steel frame, reinforced concrete building meeting highest requirements of the National Board of Underwriters and is completely isolated from other buildings by being placed in the center of four blocks of public park, a block away from the nearest buildings in any direction.

"This building, The Central Fire Alarm Station, houses the complicated electrical equipment which comprises the fire alarm telegraph system of San Francisco, and which must function perfectly at all times in order that alarms of fire may be promptly received and transmitted to the Fire Department. It is the nerve center of the Fire Department, and, if out of commission, would leave them helpless like a man paralyzed." [11] Apparatus in the station is of local manufacture consisting of a cable terminal in the basement, and operating boards, central desk, power and lighting circuit control boards and telephone switchboard on the first floor. Circuits enter headquarters underground in six-40 conductor, two-50 conductor, one-60 conductor, and one-80 conductor lead sheathed cables and terminate at the distributing rack in the basement.

Each box circuit has a milliammeter (an instrument for measuring electric currents in 1/1000 of an ampere), pilot lamp, illuminated box list, power transferring and ground testing switches, rheostat, sounder, silencing switch, and on each side of the circuit, a signal key and relay. On a shelf in front of each panel are one or two inking registers. During receipt of an alarm, visible indications are given at the box circuit panel by the illuminated box list, pilot light and milliammeter, audible indication by a sounder and the signal is recorded by one pen of an inking register. [12]

Each alarm circuit has a milliammeter, illuminated station list, power transferring switches, ground testing switch, rheostat, supervising relay and register relay. Weak supervisory current, supplied by dynamotors, is interrupted by multiple contact relays and 240 volt Direct Current is thrown directly on the lines for sending out signals. During the transmission of alarms all sounders are silent, and a pilot lamp is lighted at the telephone board. Outgoing signals are recorded by a two pen register at the control desk. [13] In service are 70 box, 11 primary (or alarm), 11 secondary (or joker), and 2 traffic warning circuits. The traffic warning circuits are put in operation if the fire apparatus is required to cross Market Street they are operated from two to five minutes when necessary. Approximately 60 percent of box circuits and 72 percent of alarm circuits are in underground cables. Fire boxes on each of the box circuits are connected in series, that is, they are connected like a string of old fashioned Christmas lights. Although we remember these old lights as troublemakers, since when one went out the whole string was extinguished, fire alarm boxes, on the other hand, are connected in such a manner for a very good reason. It is true that when the line is broken by some interfering object a whole circuit goes dead. This is because no supervisory current is flowing in the circuit. When everything is all right - no breaks in the line, etc., - a steady D.C. current flows in each of the circuits. This steady flow might seem a wasteful operation, but, as we shall see, it is better to have current flowing when all is in order and then not have a current flow when some irregularity has occurred. This is the principle used in all other alarm systems, warning devices, etc. This same principle of using the lack or absence of something to indicate the presence of some danger is also used in the air-brake systems in railroad trains. In the train, air is actually used to stop the vehicle, but the absence of air in the break setting line is used to open the valves under the cars and allow the air, which is compressed in tanks under the cars, to escape to the brake cylinders and thus apply pressure to the brake shoes.

Now in the case of the fire alarm circuits, this principle is again used to advantage. Here, however, electricity rather than air is the force with which we are dealing. If the circuit is interrupted for any reason, then the supervisory current flowing through that circuit is halted. In addition to indicating that danger has occurred to the circuit, the periodic interruptions caused in these series circuits by the equipment in each fire alarm box also indicate that a fire alarm has been pulled.

The Central Fire Alarm Station is supplied with varied sources of power. One Direct and two Alternating current circuits supply power to the building. Provisions are also made, in the event of failure of any or all outside sources of power, for the starting of a 7.5 kilowatt 120 volt D.C. generator. This building is capable of furnishing enough power for emergency lighting and for charging the batteries, etc. Such a machine, although it is tested once a week, would be used only if all outside power were cut off. [14]

What happens when an alarm comes in? Well, it is manifested by a blinking pilot light, telegraph sounder, illuminated box list, and inking register. This occurs at the central station. We must now give the answer to the question which asks us about the operation of the alarm box on the street.

Believe it or not, these boxes act like electrical switches. They are, however, mechanical in operation. When the boxes are tested every thirty days, they are wound like clocks. Such a winding makes them ready to transmit twenty-two separate alarms at four rounds per alarm. Surely, no one box is used to send twenty two alarms each month, but if an excessive number of alarms were pulled from one box, all that would be necessary would be to rewind the box. The mechanical feature of the boxes is not, therefore, considered to be a defect of any sort they are perfectly reliable.

When the handle on a certain box is pulled (let us say it is box 7743), what actually happens is that the pulling of the handle releases an electric brake on the inking register attached to that circuit and which is located at headquarters. Next, the coded digit wheel in the box starts to revolve. This coded wheel has notches cut in it and forms one constant of the circuit. A stationary finger forms the other contact. As the wheel revolves, the notches cut in it pass under the stationary finger and the circuit is interrupted for a fraction of a second while this is taking place. This interruption in the circuit causes the pen on the inking register at the central station to rise and make a mark on the already moving tape. [15] The inking register which responses to a certain box is obviously the one connected to the circuit to which that box is connected. The tape reading for an alarm pulled at box 7743 would look like this:

(------- ------- ---- --- ). Since each box sends out four rounds of the alarm, the completed tape for an alarm would look like this:

. following the second round of an alarm being received at the Central Fire Alarm Station, the relay operator checks the number and the key operator, using a telegraph key, transmits two rounds of the alarm over each class of alarm circuit. He starts the Police radio transmitter and announces the box number twice. If the fire apparatus has to cross Market Street, the traffic warning bells are sounded for a period of from two to five minutes.

The control desk for the fire radio is also located at the Central Fire Alarm Station, but due to the high frequencies used in this two way ratio, its transmitter is located on the side of Twin Peaks. Fire companies receive the reports of fires by means of the fire alarm bells in the fire houses. Sometimes, however, the various chiefs are away from the fire houses and they are notified of a fire by means of this high frequency radio. Since both the chief's autos and the central station are all on the same broadcast frequency, a two way conversation can take place between the cars and headquarters, between headquarters and cars, or among the various cars that are in service. [16]

When each shift of operators comes on duty at the Central Fire Alarm Station they wind all register springs and test all circuits for crosses and grounds. Ground tests are made for each box circuit at the end of each box test. Among the other duties of the operating personnel are the checking of the operation of the Police radio transmitter, the maintenance of the automatic time for the traffic signals (old bird cage type-the new signals have their master control at the end of each street they serve). The crew also records all box tests and directs the work of clearing box circuit troubles. Test signals are sent out over the system three times daily. The day I visited the office, March 20, 1951, a power shovel had just finished tearing out six lines buried underground out near the Bayshore Freeway. The "hospital circuit" at headquarters was put into use in order to bypass the break and restore to operation an otherwise inoperative circuit. Many "joker" or report signals are sent out on the secondary alarm wires to transmit business, et. Pay day is announced to the Fire Department by the 7-7 signal. This is a type of signal that is carried over the joker circuit.

Assignment officers from the Fire Department are on duty in the assignment office. Two lieutenants or a lieutenant and a captain are on duty at one time and, following a third alarm, a battalion chief. It is their duty to announce and direct the movements of fire apparatus for special types of services and also to bring in engines from outlying districts to cover for those who might be in service at the time.

The Department of Electricity, in addition to operating the fire alarm system and maintaining same, also performs the following services for our community:

1. The electrical inspection of old and new buildings and the supervision of overhead construction.

2. The collection of fees for electrical inspections.

3. The operation, maintenance and extension of the fire alarm and police signal systems of the city.

4. The manufacture of such equipment as is necessary to properly maintain and extend the fire alarm and police signal systems.

5. Traffic signal maintenance and repair.

6. Parking meter maintenance and repair.

Ralph W. Wiley, previously referred to as the Engineer of Underground Construction was the Department's former chief. Mr. Wiley invented the old "bird cage" type of traffic signal which is gradually being replaced now by street signals of a newer and improved design. In order to regulate the operation of his "creations," Mr. Wiley also invented the automatic electric timer which is located at the Central Fire Alarm Station. This device still regulates the signals which are still in use. Mr. Wiley died in 1949 and was succeeded by Gordon C. Osborne, who now directs the numerous and varied duties of the Department of Electricity. Footnotes:

[1] San Francisco Municipal Record, Louis C. Levy, Editor, San Francisco: July 1931. Vol. V No. 5 p.13

[4] San Francisco Municipal Reports 1865 - 1866, For the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1866. San Francisco: Towne and Bacon Co., p. 218

[5] San Francisco Municipal Reports 1899 - 1900, For the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1900. San Francisco: The Hinton Publishing Co., p. 569.

[8] San Francisco Municipal Reports 1907 - 1908, For the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1908. San Francisco: The Neal Publishing Co., p. 713

[9] Municipal Record, July 1931. p. 16.

[10] San Francisco Municipal Reports 1914 - 1915, For the Fiscal Year ending June 30, 1915. San Francisco: The Neal Publishing co., p.530.

[11] Municipal Record, July 1931, p. 20.

[12] City and County Record, George H. Allen, Editor and Publisher, San Francisco: January - February 1949. Vol. XVI Nos. 1&2. p. 23.

[15] This information was gathered at the author's visit to the Central Fire Alarm Station.

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