The Chinatown building that was destroyed by a five-alarm fire in January will be demolished and rebuilt.
Owned by the city, the historic structure at 70 Mulberry Street was partly decimated by the fire that ravaged the top three floors of the building. Though there were no fatalities, the January 23rd fire was so difficult to put out that firefighters spent more than a day extinguishing pockets of flames that lingered throughout the five-story building. Nine firefighters and one civilian were injured.
No one has entered the top floors of the building since the fire, according to a press release from the Department of Citywide Administrative Services Thursday.
"The city determined that the first phase of deconstruction is necessary due to extensive, irreparable damage to the building. During deconstruction, the city will be able to access parts of the building that have remained inaccessible to date due to unsafe conditions in the building," the release said.
Built in 1893, the building used to house PS 23 and educated generations of children in the neighborhood. After the school closed in 1975, the building was converted into a cultural hub for the community, with several non-profits displaced after the fire including Chinatown Manpower, a senior center run by the Chinese-American Planning Council, the United East Athletics Association and H.T. Chen & Dancers company.
The Museum of Chinese in America used to be located in the building and kept its 85,000-item archives on the second floor after the museum relocated to a new home on nearby Centre Street. The museum officials and historians feared the fire and attendant water and smoke damage would mean the loss of "irreplaceable" artifacts that traced the growth and legacy of the Chinese diaspora in New York and other parts of America.
While hundreds of boxes of the archival material have been recovered, the city's plans to slowly "deconstruct" the building will improve access to other parts of the archive, DCAS said.
The first phase intends to focus on the most damaged parts of the building and allow more access to the archives over the next week. H.T. Chen's company and the United East Athletics Association will also be able to salvage whatever remains of their items, and the senior center hopes to recover some Chinese musical instruments beloved by their clientele.
“Today marks the beginning of a rebuilding process for this cherished part of the Chinatown community,” said DCAS Commissioner Lisette Camilo in the release. “We are pleased that we will now be able to access the priceless museum artifacts and tenant belongings that have previously been inaccessible due to unsafe conditions inside the building.”
The cause of the fire was still under investigation, FDNY said this week.
MOCA said in tweets Wednesday that "the remaining 80 percent of the MOCA collections, along with our neighbor tenants' belongings, will be retrieved next week from 70 Mulberry."
“When the 5-alarm fire broke out at 70 Mulberry, MOCA anticipated the loss of its 85,000-item collections and archives collected over 40 years and our neighbors’ precious belongings,” MOCA President Nancy Yao Maasbach said in the release. “With the city’s prioritization, the community’s perseverance, and the public’s acknowledgment of our stories, our heritage, and our history, MOCA will always be indebted to the efforts made at this time by all. The road to recovery, repair, and rebuild is long but we now have visibility on that road and we are committed to walking it together.”
MOCA has fundraised more than $438,000 for recovery efforts.
The first phase of deconstruction will take about four months. The city said the Department of Environmental Protection will continue to monitor air quality for the presence of asbestos fibers and test results have come back negative.
UPDATE, 3:20 p.m.: New York Senator Charles Schumer has requested the National Endowment for the Humanities award an emergency grant to help the museum preserve its archives.
“The contributions of Chinese-American immigrants to New York and the nation are inestimable and the Museum of Chinese in America is a precious repository of that history. MOCA has preserved the rich legacy of these contributions through its number of invaluable artifacts, but after the devastating fire in Chinatown last month, the collection is now in jeopardy. That’s why I’m urging the National Endowment for the Humanities to assist in the recovery efforts of this collection by awarding emergency funds to MOCA and to work with the museum to help prevent another emergency,” said U.S. Senator Charles Schumer in a release Thursday.
The NEH can award up to $30,000 in its Chairman’s Emergency Grant program.