January 9, 1912 The Equitable Fire

The Equitable Assurance Building Is Destroyed By Fire 100 Years Ago Today

Equitable Building Jan. 10, 1912 – View From The Singer Building © Library of Congress

David Dunlap’s excellent story in The New York Times about the Equitable Assurance Building fire is merely a reminder about how great disasters are eventually forgotten over time. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 took 146 lives and was remembered in various ceremonies on its 100th anniversary.

No such commemorations will be held this year for the Equitable fire which killed six people, including Battalion Chief William Walsh.

The fire took place on a brutally cold day and the water froze quickly and left macabre ruins resembling an ice palace.

Many of the photographs from The Times story were taken from a commemorative booklet entitled The Equitable Building Destroyed By Fire January 9, 1912 that was issued within weeks after the fire.  I own a copy of this twenty page booklet and reading it you get a full sense of what a difficult blaze this was to battle.

A direct consequence of this fire was that the new Equitable Building which was built in its place, resulted in zoning law reformation in New York City. On just under an acre of land, Equitable built from 1913-1915, a 41 story skyscraper building with 1.2 million square feet of floor /office area with no setbacks. The public outrage to this exploitation of land use lead in 1916 to New York City instituting a comprehensive zoning resolution which made sure that light would reach the streets and buildings of this size could not be built without setbacks.

It seems today that builders build monstrously tall glass monoliths right on top of one another creating a pattern of lookalike structures with no distinct identity. I’ll take the Equitable building over these dull glass behemoths anytime.

4 thoughts on “January 9, 1912 The Equitable Fire

  1. Don Reed

    Thanks! “New York Photographs 1850-1950,” by Benjamin Blom; The Amaryllis Press, Inc. [E.P. Dutton, Inc.] (1982 hardcover) on page 103 gave out the date as being January 11th, 1912. I knew I had worked on this event at some time in the past and this didn’t look right.

  2. Lindsay

    How did the city and firemen deal with the ice? Did they wait for it to melt in January? Throw salt or sand on it?

    1. B.P. Post author

      The ice formed because of the bitterly cold weather conditions from the water sprayed upon the fire. While the ice was forming from the vast amounts of water being sprayed on the Equitable, it made fighting the fire extremely difficult. There was little the firemen could do about the ice while the fire was raging and they were trying to extinguish it.

      The week of January 9 – 16 was one of the coldest of the year. Three days after the fire on January 12 the temperature in the city reached a high of eight degrees. By the 16th it had warmed up to 34. By the 18th it was 45. The ice palace created by the fire probably melted by itself as the temperature went above the freezing mark during the warmer days of mid to late January. I did not see a follow up story on the city dealing with the ice.

      1. ndr

        Mysteries at the Museum had a story on this. They sprayed water from a higher vantage point (instead of from below) allowing water to enter the interior of building and eventually put out the fire.


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