The archives of the Museum of Chinese in America may be in better shape than feared, after a five-alarm fire destroyed part of the Chinatown building where they were kept.
City workers began the process of recovering the museum's boxes from the building at 70 Mulberry Street on Wednesday. The archives, which boast 85,000 items of historical and cultural significance, were stored on the second floor of the five-story building, where a fire on January 24th destroyed the top floors and roof. Nine firefighters and one civilian suffered non-life-threatening injuries. The NYPD said the cause of the fire was not "criminal" and the investigation is ongoing.
"We are so excited to share that it looks like everything we took out of the building this morning is very much salvageable. Very much salvageable," said MOCA President Nancy Yao Maasbach at a press conference on Wednesday, adding that 200 boxes had already been recovered. "So we had about 25 boxes get immediately sent to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where they will be immediately (put in freezers), stabilized and then freeze-dried." The fire did not reach the archival rooms, but Maasbach had said she was most worried about water damage, mold growth and soot.
The museum itself is located at 215 Centre Street but started out in the historic Mulberry Street building and kept space there for its archives after moving in 2009. The archives contained four decades' worth of collecting, curating and preserving historical artifacts documenting the Chinese diaspora's growth in New York and America.
Some of the recovered boxes apparently were in good condition and needed only to be repackaged, Maasbach said. "We had about 150 boxes sent immediately to the museum where we have about 25 volunteers who are then just repositioning them, putting them in new boxes."
The future of the building, formerly PS 23 and built in 1893, is in question, according to Department of Building Assistant Commissioner Yegal Shamash.
"There is some severe and significant fire damage to the building," Shamash said at the press conference. "The structural stability of the building right now is not in jeopardy. But overall we do have concerns with the stability of the building long term."
The other organizations that were displaced by the fire include the H.T. Chen & Dancers company, a senior center run by the Chinese-American Planning Council, the Chinatown Manpower job center, and the United East Athletics Association. Councilmember Margaret Chin said the organizations have all found temporary homes to continue providing services, especially to ensure the community can celebrate Lunar New Year.
"With the entire city celebrating Lunar New Year, we recognize the urgency to make sure that the needs of the displaced community group and the New Yorkers that they serve are met," Chin said at the press conference.
H.T. Chen told reporters that his rare orchid, which had been living inside the dance studios, was the first object retrieved -- and it was still alive.
With Shumita Basu/WNYC