January 1957: Sub-Zero Temperatures Cover First Methodist Church in Ice As Crews Battle Flames

First Methodist Church, January 19th, 1957

In January 1957, Syracuse and much of Central New York was experiencing particularly cold weather. According to the Post Standard from Thursday, January 17th, temperatures in Syracuse during the week fell to “a frigid minus-13, only 39 degrees below normal.” This was after temperatures “plummeted to a January record low of 24 below zero between 8 and 9a.m. Tuesday [15th].” The headline read, “Temperatures 10-15 Degrees Below Normal 5-Day Prospect for Area,” lining up more bone chilling weather for Central New Yorkers, which included a high of minus two at midnight earlier that week.

This set the stage to amplify problems during an emergency, specifically a fire, which is exactly what happened on the night of January 15th at the First Methodist Church on Block 114. According to the same Post Standard article, Fire Marshal John M. Dacey “ruled out arson as the cause of the more than one million dollar fire that destroyed the First Methodist Church, Wesleyan Publishing Co., and damaged two other buildings.” Instead, Dacey went on to say he was “investigating the possibility that a plumber’s torch might have cause the spark” setting the building ablaze. This was the city’s worst fire in more than a decade, ultimately destroying the church and the adjacent buildings. The fire broke out at 5:15pm and went on for several hours. The fire came close to destroying even more buildings in the area, including the Court House, Syracuse Public Library, Young Women’s Christian Association, and the Seymour Hotel. The reported damages exceeded one-million dollars.

First Methodist Church

First Methodist Church, January 19th, 1957

With temperatures well below zero, 350 firemen fighting the blaze coated the church with “between three million and five million gallons of water” that turned to ice that was reported to be up to three feet thick. To make matters worse, according to an article from the Society of Historical Archaeology, “The water caused extensive damage to the northeast end of the building, and the north wall of the later addition was replaced.”

Those who arrived on the scene first had an interesting story to tell. According to Post Standard article on January 16th, people recalled hearing the organ continue to play until the roof ultimately caved in. The article states “the phenomena might have resulted from the heat of the flames affecting the swells so that noise sounded like music.” Those early arrivals mentioned it was “nothing recognizable” but “they unmistakably heard the organ play.”

After the fire, the Temple Society of Concord, one of the oldest in the country, invited the church to hold is Sunday worship services there.

Syracuse’s First Methodist Church was founded in 1824 and, to this point, was one of the oldest in Syracuse. According to the article on January 16th, the church originally “met in a one-story log schoolhouse at North Salina and West Genesee Street.” Plans for this church were created by architect Archimedes Russell, who was also responsible for Central Technical High School, the Fourth Onondaga County Courthouse, Dey Brothers Building, and the Yates Hotel. Russell was  also the founder of King + King Architects, now the oldest continuously operating  architectural firm in New York State and the fourth-oldest in the country. According to an April 1899 article in the Post Standard titled “First Methodist Church Will Be an Ornament,” it describes the future church as a largely Gothic style building with “many new and desirable features. The structure has a commanding tower and the arrangement of windows and entrances is pleasing to the eye.”

The cornerstone was laid in 1903 and its basement walls were made of Onondaga Limestone. The church was also one of the first churches to use radio in broadcast of its sermons, which began in 1923.