ST. LOUIS • A rare manuscript library on Russell Boulevard caught fire Tuesday evening, sending at least two dozen firetrucks to the location and dozens of onlookers into the street, but leaving officials with hope that firefighters had saved much of the collection.
“I’m thousands of miles away,” Karpeles said Tuesday from his home in Santa Barbara. “I’m very nervous at the moment. I don’t know what to say or think.”
The St. Louis Fire Department received its first call to the fire at 7 p.m., and quickly gave the blaze four-alarm status. By 7:45 p.m., the back of the building was engulfed, flames were shooting 6 to 8 feet above the roof, and smoke poured out of the windows, the glow of fire behind them.
At least 80 firefighters responded, officials said. They hauled out statues and old wooden model ships as the building burned, said Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson. “They knew they were in a museum,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Don’t leave empty-handed. Grab something and get it out of here.’”
At one point, part of the second-floor ceiling collapsed while at least 20 firefighters were inside, Jenkerson said. “The entire ceiling came down around and on some of these guys,” he said.
No one was injured. Flames were largely extinguished by 9 p.m.
Kerry Manderbach, director of the museum, was on site Tuesday evening and said the manuscripts were largely housed on the first floor, and the fire, at least in the front of the building, was mostly on the second. Upstairs was a sanctuary or chapel, he said. Earlier in the day, a smoke alarm went off, and he ran into the museum and grabbed old manuscripts regarding Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara.
The museum opened in 2015, the 13th branch in a system created by David and Marsha Karpeles, who made their fortune in Southern California real estate. Collectors of historic documents for decades, they founded the first of their museums in 1983.
The building, a six-columned brick-and-stone church with arching stained-glass windows, sits just five houses off South Grand Boulevard, across the street from Compton Hill’s Reservoir Park, and on a block of mansions, luxury apartments and grand old St. Louis homes. Originally the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, the 107-year-old Greek Revival structure more recently housed the New Paradise Missionary Baptist Church.
The St. Louis Karpeles location has displayed, among other things, St. Louis’ application to join the National League, a Gutenberg Bible, the Confederate Constitution, a map from the Spanish Armada, Babe Ruth’s first baseball contract, the first draft of the Bill of Rights, and Columbus’ handwritten letter describing the coasts of America in his last voyage of discovery.
Exhibits are rotated among branches.
“The extraordinary thing about the Karpeles collection is the diversity,” Stephen White, then the director of the Karpeles Museum in Charleston, S.C., told the Post-Dispatch in 2015. “What does he collect? Anything and everything, in the arts, mathematics, politics, science, religion, the whole range of academic subjects.”
It was unclear which manuscripts were at the St. Louis location when the fire broke out on Tuesday. The museum’s Facebook page said it was exhibiting documents from Russia, from 1711-1963, and also a section on the St. Louis Black Media Experience. Manderbach said the museum had a yearbook from Fidel Castro’s time in high school, and military documents pertaining to Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary.
Manderbach said the documents were all in protective cases or files, and the fire department tried not to soak them while fighting the upstairs fire.
“I feel pretty devastated,” Manderbach said. “This is a wonderful resource for the community, and to think we might lose it — not lose the documents — but the exhibition space, it’s heart-wrenching.”
Karpeles said he was on the phone with his assistant director in Seattle to make plans for the St. Louis museum’s collection.
The museum also housed the St. Louis Media History Foundation’s collection, which includes archives, recordings, posters, photographs and T-shirts from the region’s radio, television, print and advertising history. Foundation Executive Director Frank Absher said the collection, in filing cabinets, wasn’t burned but may have water damage. He figured the museum building itself, however, could be beyond repair.
“It’s terrible to lose a building of this historical significance,” he said.
Absher was supposed to pick up some items from the museum Friday to display at a dinner Saturday celebrating the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame, which the foundation maintains.
“There will be a table,” he said. “But it will be sparse.”
Neighbors gathered in the grass at Reservoir Park. Eric Ericson said the blaze was devastating to watch.
Firefighters aimed water cannons at the windows and then “blew through the beautiful art glass,” Ericson said.
“It’s really sad to see this,” Ericson said.