The 1961 WGBH Fire

This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series The Don Hallock Collection

From Don Hallock

In the early morning hours of October 14, 1961, a raging fire at the 84 Massachusetts Avenue studios of WGBH completely destroyed the facility. WGBH FM and TV were located in the second and third floors of a three story roller former skating rink. The fire, which began in the studio-A area, quickly consumed the upper floors of the building, rendering it a total loss. These stills were excerpted from 16mm black and white news film footage shot by Boston area commercial television stations.

Here firemen enter the rear of the building from the fire escape near studio-A control and the projection room. In the background light from the fire inside can be seen through windows which had formerly been covered over when studio-A was created.

Cambridge firefighters worked through the pre-dawn hours in a vain attempt to limit the damage.

By morning the effort had had proved futile, and evolved into one of simply hosing down the charred remains.

The top of 84 Mass. had become an open shell. For the first time in the history of the station the studios were illuminated by natural light. Left: inside studio-B, showing what remained of the grid and the wall over the control room.

Inside studio_A looking toward Massachusetts Avenue. The roof had fallen in and the wall between the upstairs offices and the studio had collapsed making the Mass. Ave. windows visible from the studio floor. Norman Feather’s screening room and film library is upstairs to the right, and below it the studio control room. The FM studio is straight ahead.

Studio lights among the wreckage

Film storage racks in the screening room sagging from the intense heat.

The Baldwin concert grand piano which had been played by the likes of George Shearing and….

…carcasses of cameras 1 and 2, all in studio-A.

All through the day, station staff scavenged the building for any materials which might have been of use. Not much was.

Out on the street, a growing collection of fire and/or water damaged equipment included: A 5K studio light

Empty 1/4 inch audio tape reels from FM control, and a monitor, probably from Studio-A control.

FM engineer, Andy Ferguson, in full disaster gear adds to the salvage pile accumulating to the side of the building closest to the Charles river.

One of the studio clocks stands in mute testimony to the exact moment during the fire when the power went off — 4:40 am.

Books and files are brought out of the building.

A staff member examines the focus yoke from one of studio-B’s cameras, which were completely destroyed in the extraordinary heat generated in that smaller and more enclosed space (that’s a pedestal column lying to the left). In “B” the aluminum microphone boom was literally vaporized, and the control room windows melted into flowing rivulets of glass.

Bill “Woozy” Harris opens the camera equipment cabinet just outside studio-A control. He pulls out what’s left of a 75mm lens.

One of the cameras in studio-A, looks to the sky, while at the left, that vertical structure is the long tongue of the Fearless Panoram dolly.

Outside, in the early afternoon, a few last items are stripped from the building. The station’s call letters are removed from their place on the little balcony above the front door, and the name plaque is removed from the column to the left of the door (it is now on permanent display in the lobby of 125 Western Avenue).

Fred Barzyk lifts the big “W” into a waiting van, while Bob Moscone looks on.

Thoroughly exhausted and hollow-eyed, Dan Beach, Greg Harney and Bob Moscone look on as the last remnants of the station’s tenure at 84 Massachusetts Avenue are hauled away.

Beyond WGBH’s human resources, the only truly useful production asset to survive the fire is the partly completed Greyhound mobil unit. It will play a crucial role in the station’s future viability as a television producing organization.

A camera side-panel tacked to the door identifies WGBH’s interim location on the 4th floor of the Kendall Square Building.

The offices were secured within hours of the fire, and a phone switchboard, run as usual by inimitable Rose Buresh, had been installed by the next day.

The station’s young program manager, Bob Larsen, pores over schedules in an effort to keep the station on the air and on schedule.

And when time permitted, he’d pick up a mop and join those cleaning up the space. In the long run, WGBH missed only one day of programming.

Volunteers scrub down well used replacement office furniture.

Continuous damage control meetings take place around a long table in a back corner of the office space (that’s Greg Harney in the trench coat, second from right).

David Ives sorts through badly soaked files.

George Weiner, WGBH building maintenance custodian, now with no building to maintain, put in long hours doing the hard-core installation of new office facilities.

The station’s accountant sets up his facilities as rapidly as possible in order to keep financial operations running as smoothly as possible.

In the background, the big call letters from 84 Mass. Ave. are carefully stored as a gesture of everyone’s belief in the future.

Very soon, the shell of 84 Massachusetts Avenue is disassembled and trucked away leaving, ultimately, almost no trace of the station’s former location.

While, at high levels, wheelings and dealings between the station’s upper management and the Boston academic community result in the launching of big plans….

Trustee of the Lowell Institute Co-operative Broadcasting Council, Ralph Lowell and Hartford N. Gunn Jr., General Manager of WGBH, are interviewed by a local television reporter (probably for WBZ-TV).

Interview with Ralph Lowell

    (For those of you who’ve forgotten what 16mm double-perf sounded like, there’s a little sprocket-noise surprise in each of these clips.)

    Interviewer: Mr. Lowell, when do you expect to break ground for the new WGBH studios?

    Ralph Lowell: We’re hoping to break ground early this fall.

    Interviewer: And if the luck is with you, when do you expect to move in?

    RL: Within a year from the time that we break ground.

    Interviewer: Have you received all the money you need now to build these new studios?

    RL: As you know, the Ford Foundation offered to match a half a million dollars, and we’re within a hundred thirteen thousand dollars of our goal.

    Interviewer: And what will the building cost you when it’s through. What is the entire cost of this new structure going to be?

    RL: The building alone, itself, will approximate a million two-hundred-thousand dollars.

    Interviewer: Did any other university besides Harvard offer you space for channel two?

    RL: Oh yes, they were all of them most cooperative. Brandies and Northeastern offered us land. Boston University offered us part of one of their buildings.

    Interviewer: Well, thank you very much, sir.

    RL: Thank You.

    Interview with Hartford Gunn

    Interview with Hartford Gunn

    Interviewer: Mr. Gunn, what type of building will this be when it’s concluded?

    Hartford N. Gunn: We expect this to be a modern design, and to incorporate the best facilities that we know that are available for radio and television today.

    Interviewer: Is this going to be a multi-storied studio, or is it going to be all on one floor?

    HNG: No, its…the studio height will be about twenty to twenty-two feet….normal….height. And then the large studio will have an area which goes up to thirty feet, including a stage-house, so that scenery can be lifted off the studio floor and stored overhead.

    Interviewer: Would you say that this is going to compare favorably with any other educational channel in the United States when you’re through?

    HNG: I would think so. I would think that this might be one of the very best facilities of any educational station around the country, and probably the largest, for the moment anyway.

    Interviewer: How do you think it will compare with commercial TV stations?

    HNG: I think it will compare very favorably….larger than many of them and possibly not as large as some stations. But I think it will be an excellent facility.

    Interviewer: Are you planning to have any brand new television equipment put in that perhaps some of the stations in this area may not have?

    HNG: That’s a little hard to say. As you know, many of the stations in the area are putting in new equipment, even now. I would hope that ours would be certainly as new, and possibly there might be a few surprises. I would hope so.

    Interviewer: Right, well thank you very much, sir, and good luck to you.

    HNG: Thank you.

    And here, at 125 Western Avenue, are the first signs of WGBH’s new beginnings….

    2 thoughts on “The 1961 WGBH Fire

    1. In 1958 my dear friend, mentor and piano teacher, the great Russian pianist, Alexander Borovsky (1889-1968) performed on WGBH-TV in live recital in 12 programs the complete 48 Preludes & Fugues of Bach and Beethoven Piano Sonatas. Unfortunately all these films were destroyed in the 1961 fire.

      I am researching Borovsky’s life and spoke to someone who during the fire threw out of the window many scripts, videos which were caught on blankets by MIT students. I am curious to know if perhaps one or more films survived at M.I.T.

      I have all of the broadcasts scripts which were given to me recently by Borovsky’s step-daughter, Natalie King. She has also given me all of Borovsky’s Archives. The Bach program was co-sponsored by Lowell.

      Am happy to speak with you.

      Bill Jones in Delmar, NY 12054
      518 439 3861

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