Mt. Loretto burns down, these excerpts taken from the Staten Island Advance Newspaper site at www.silive.com

March 6, 2000

Girls' orphanage at Mount Loretto gutted by fire

No injuries reported as 150 firefighters continue to battle the blaze

By MICHAEL SCHOLL

A historic Pleasant Plains building which served as the home for thousands of orphaned girls over the past century was destroyed during a spectacular four-alarm fire last night.  The fire in the St. Elizabeth's Building, a former orphanage which had been operated by the Mission of Immaculate Virgin, Mount Loretto, was reported at 6:38 p.m.

The fire apparently started in the basement and spread quickly through the vacant, six-story Georgian-style structure, which was engulfed in flames by the time firefighters arrived.

"I think it went from the basement through all the floors," said Chief Mick Hughes of the Fire Department's 8th Division.

The building sits on land recently purchased by the State of New York as parkland. Discussion currently was under way whether to try and save the building as part of the park, or demolish it. Last night, witnesses who were able to peer through the thick smoke could see flames bursting through the bell tower on the roof and through several windows on the lower floors. Some of the flames from the bell tower had a greenish tint due to the presence of copper on the roof. No injuries were reported as a result of the fire. The building was thoroughly gutted.

"It's a tremendous loss," said Stephen Rynn, the current executive director of Mount Loretto. More than 150 firefighters fought the blaze, which was labeled suspicious. Because the building was vacant, firefighters did not risk venturing into the building while the conflagration was under way. Instead, they fought the fire from the outside, relying on high-pressure hoses mounted on tower ladders. Even so, the fire was still burning early this morning.

(Advance Photo/Michael McWeeney)

Flames from the four-alarm blaze that destroyed the St. Elizabeth's building could be seen for miles.

At 3:30 a.m. today, Fire Department spokesman Joseph Leoncavallo said firefighters were expected to remain on the scene for several more hours as part of "a prolonged operation." He said firefighters would continue shooting water into the building until the fire is out.

At 8:30 this morning, the building was still smoldering. Firefighters were initially hampered by the inadequate water pressure provided by the hydrants closest to the building. To compensate, firefighters had to attach hoses to hydrants on Hylan Boulevard, which is about one-third of a mile from the building.

Many of the onlookers expressed lament at the loss of such a historic, handsome building. "I always thought this (building) would make a good seaside hotel," said Robert Haggerty of Page Avenue, Richmond Valley. Councilman Stephen Fiala (R-South Shore), who went to the scene after the fire was reported, said the loss of the building is a loss for the community. "I think it's a tragedy," said Fiala, who added that the building represented an "important piece" of local history. Mount Loretto was founded in 1883 as a boys orphanage on the site of the old Bennett farm by the Rev. John Christopher Drumgoole, an Irish immigrant who was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest at the age of 53.

In 1888, Father Drumgoole's successor, the Rev. James Dougherty, established a girls orphanage in a temporary location in an abandoned fishermen's hotel. That same year, Father Dougherty began construction of the St. Elizabeth's Building on the waterfront overlooking Raritan Bay. Upon completion, the building became the permanent home of the girl's orphanage.

During its life as an orphanage, the building would house up to 350 girls at a time, according to Rynn, Mount Loretto's current director. After the orphanage was closed, the structure was used as an administrative building until it became vacant several years ago. Rynn said that although the building has been vacant, it still has an emotional significance because of the many girls who spent their formative years there. That sentiment was echoed by William D'Ambrosio, Mount Loretto's assistant executive director.

"This is a bit of history burning before my eyes," said D'Ambrosio, who has worked at Mount Loretto for the past 33 years. "Thousands of girls who were raised here considered this building their home." The Archdiocese of New York, which operates Mount Loretto, recently sold the St. Elizabeth's Building to the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), along with 194 acres of surrounding property. The DEC plans to establish a park on the acquired land, which is located on the waterfront side of Hylan Boulevard.

After the sale, Mount Loretto retained control of around 200 acres on the opposite side of Hylan Boulevard. It continues to run a variety of social service programs on that property. D'Ambrosio said the DEC took over the building three months ago, although Mount Loretto officials were on the scene last night to advise the Fire Department about the building's specifications.

Since the DEC purchased the waterfront property, there has been a debate as to whether the St. Elizabeth's Building should be demolished or renovated. As part of that debate, the DEC has requested proposals from people with ideas for the building's future use Rynn said that, under the terms of the sale, Mount Loretto is required to pay for the demolition of the building if demolition proves necessary.

Last night wasn't the first time that fire has wreaked havoc at Mount Loretto. In 1973, the Church of St. Joachim and St. Anne, a well-known Mount Loretto landmark which had been used to film a scene from the movie "The Godfather," was destroyed by a fire which started in the church's boiler room. The church was rebuilt in 1976, thanks in large part to a $140,000 fund-raising drive led by the Advance.

(ADVANCE STAFF WRITER Wayne Peacock contributed to this report)

 

 

March 8, 2000

Arrests may be near in fire

Fire marshals are following significant tips; building appears to be a total loss

March 8, 2000

By JOHN J. O'BRIEN

ADVANCE STAFF WRITER

As investigators close in on the arsonists who apparently torched the St. Elizabeth's orphanage Sunday, the historic Pleasant Plains building appears destined for the wrecking ball. Assistant Fire Chief Rich McCahey said fire marshals have been contacted by several tipsters who called a hotline publicized in the Advance yesterday and are following up on significant leads.

"We have received a few leads and we have three teams out in the area," said McCahey, of the Fire Department's Bureau of Fire Investigation. "And at this stage, we are interviewing several possible witnesses who were in the area at the time of the fire. But no arrests are imminent."

McCahey said anyone with information on the fire should call the bureau at (718) 722-3600. All calls will be kept confidential and the lines will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. While fire officials continue to probe the devastating four-alarm fire, which continued to smolder for a third day yesterday, officials from the state and the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit land conservation group, will have to decide what to do with the burned-out shell.

The 103-year-old building sits on a waterfront bluff on what used to be part of the campus of the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, Mount Loretto. In 1998, the Trust for Public Land negotiated a deal with the Archdiocese of New York to purchase the 194-acre waterfront parcel for $25 million. The deal mandated that the state, in turn, would purchase the land from the trust in three phases and use the property for a public park or preserve.

It appears that the building is not yet owned by the state because it is part of the later purchase phase, trust and state officials said yesterday. Apparently, the state has legally assumed only about a third of property so far. "It was a big side deal," said the trust's state director, Erik Kulleseid. "We hold land and this building posed somewhat of a dilemma." The trust was in the middle of accepting proposals from nonprofit organizations that had an interest in refurbishing the 19th-century structure. Now, Kulleseid said, the trust will have to go through a process similar to that of a homeowner who has suffered losses in a fire.

"It's distressing, that it [the fire] happened, and we will take our lead from the Fire Department," Kulleseid said. "We have insurance, but I'm not sure how much it is worth." City and Mount Loretto officials said Monday the building is probably unsalvageable andwill likely be demolished. As for the remaining two-thirds of the waterside parcel to be acquired by the state, trustofficials said the deal should still go through whether the building is razed or not. "If the building does come down," he added, "the wildlife aspect will be more central to the property. But, at this point, it is not clear what will happen."

Mount Loretto was established in 1883 by the Rev. John Christopher Drumgoole as a boys' orphanage on the old Bennett farm. Five years later, Father Drumgoole's successor, the Rev. James Dougherty, created a girls' orphanage in a temporary location in an abandoned fishermen's hotel. That same year, Father Dougherty began his campaign to build St. Elizabeth's on the bluff overlooking Raritan Bay. Girls moved into the five-story Georgian-style building in 1897. Over the last century, thousands of girls, many immigrant orphans of war or poverty, were raised there. It has not been used as a residence since 1988 and has been vacant since 1992.

The blaze started at about 6:30 p.m. in the basement of the building and quickly spread through the entire structure. Firefighting efforts were hampered by the fact that hoses had to be stretched a third of a mile from the building to the only working hydrants on Hylan Boulevard. Fire officials said they believed a flammable liquid was used to start the blaze and have heard reports that young voices were heard in the building Sunday afternoon.

 

April 4, 2000

Orphanage ruins being demolished

The 103-year-old Mount Loretto building was left a burned-out shell after an arson fire last month

By JODI LEE REIFER

ADVANCE STAFF WRITER

Piece by piece, a demolition crew yesterday began dismantling the historic building once home to generations of orphaned children. The 103-year-old St. Elizabeth's orphanage was gutted in a four-alarm arson fire last month. The Georgian-style structure smoldered for three days, the fire damaging everything save a copper cross at the top.

Robert Bxxxxx, 16, of Fourth Street in New Dorp, and a 15-year-old whose name has not been released because he is a minor, are accused of setting fire to the orphanage, on the grounds of the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, Mount Loretto. Now a burned-out shell with splintered beams and shattered windows, the Pleasant Plains orphanage has been ordered demolished by the city. In accordance, the Archdiocese of New York will pay more than $800,000 to knock down the building, said Stephen Rynn, executive director of the Mount. In 1998, the Trust for Public Land negotiated a deal with the Archdiocese of New York to purchase the waterfront portion of the Mount's sprawling campus. The deal mandated that the state, in turn, would purchase the land from the trust in three phases and use the property for a public park or preserve.

The building is not yet owned by the state because itsits on land that is ticketed for a later purchase phase. "As part of our deal with the state, there was a contingency built in that the archdiocese would pay for the demolition of St. Elizabeth's if it became necessary," said Rynn. At the time, the archdiocese had already agreed to demolish another building that served as an orphanage for female infants, because it was not structurally sound. Louis Venosa of Travis has been contracted to raze and excavate St. Elizabeth's, according to Rynn. It will take one week to knock down the building, but longer to clear the area of debris, he said. The demolition will be performed section by section for safety reasons.

Over the last century, thousands of girls, many immigrant orphans of war or poverty, were raised there. It has not been used as a residence since 1988 and has been vacant since 1992. "It stood for a tradition of Catholic lay persons, men and women, and clergy who were dedicated to raising less fortunate children. It seems like a part of our cultural history is lost to that demolition," said Rynn. Upon learning of the fire this week, Catskill Mountains resident Carol Rosa was saddened. Ms. Rosa grew up in Mount Loretto, sharing clothing, goody packages, even toothbrushes, with fellow orphans.

"One time my girl friend couldn't find her toothbrush," she recalled. "So I said, 'Here, use mine.' Where were we supposed to get another one from?" Sharing and judging people based on their character rather than their monetary worth were two of the values Ms. Rosa, 51, learned at the orphanage. "I thank God I was raised there because God knows what would have become of me," said Ms. Rosa, the 10th child in a family of 12. Most of her brothers and sisters were split between St. Elizabeth's and St. Michael's, an orphanage in Greenridge, because their parents didn't have enough money to support them. Since the March 5 fire, dozens of Staten Islanders, some former orphans, have visited the mammoth structure on a bluff overlooking Raritan Bay, said Anthony Rivera, a security guard assigned to the property. Visitors must stay at least 100 feet from the building -- which still smells of charred wood and scorched brick -- for safety reasons. "Some cry. Some leave flowers. Some pray," said Rivera. Two women, who grew up there, spent an afternoon eating lunch on the grounds, sobbing, he said. "It's like losinga parent."

The 16-year-old suspect, Bxxxxx, has been charged with third-degree arson, criminal trespass, criminal mischief and reckless endangerment. He has been released on bail and is scheduled to appear in Criminal Court April 19. The most severe charge, third-degree arson, carries a maximum sentence of five to 15 years in prison. The Corporation Counsel, the city's legal arm, has not filed charges against the younger boy. If charges are filed, he will be tried as a juvenile in Family Court in St. George. The boy has been released into the custody of his parents.

back

photographs