Suspicious Fires Week: The Campanile of the Former Second Baptist Church

A serious and potentially devastating fire struck the campanile, or Italian-style bell tower of the former Second Baptist Church this last week. Thanks to the professionalism of the St. Louis Fire Department, the flames did not spread to the rest of the complex. Also, due to the variety of the Gothic Revival that the church is constructed in, the Italian School, the tower is set apart as its own free-standing structure, which kept falling debris and flames from easily spreading to other parts of the building.

Readers might remember from a historic photo I published that the tower was once taller, and was shortened, probably due to the ravages of the weather. The roof of the tower is a complete loss.

Detail of Plate 29, Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, September 1909

Looking at the Sanborn Fire Insurance map shortly after its construction, we learn that the tower was originally 197 feet tall, and is made entirely of brick masonry with no steel or cast iron skeletal support. No thickness of the walls of the tower is listed, but we can assume they are stouter at the base and taper slightly towards the top. At its base is a concrete boiler room that is labeled “fireproof.”

The question remains, of course, is how much of the load bearing walls were damaged by the heat of the flames. The wood staircase, which obviously provided the fuel for the spectacular inferno captured in photos and video, most likely collapsed into a giant pile at the base of the tower. Brick by its very nature, having been fired in a kiln, is very resistant to heat, but I would want to know if the walls were damaged when the wood supports broke away and fell from their connections with the masonry. Many wood floor joists are designed to fall away from (and are not securely attached to) load-bearing walls to prevent the collapse of the latter. It will be difficult to assess the condition of the walls on the interior of the tower due to the tight confines; perhaps a drone will be useful in this situation.

Regardless, intense heat is definitely not good for aging mortar between bricks.

It’s standard practice for the Building Division to write the date of a board-up on the plywood, and so now the day of the infamous fire is memorialized out front: 10-26-21.

Going around back to the alley accessible from McPherson Avenue, there is more obvious smoke damage to the brick.

Water was still pouring out of the building into the alley; it was not from the recent rain.

Roofing tiles had fallen from the top of the tower and crashed onto the roof below.

Further signs of neglect are obvious: there is a long stretch of missing gutter on the main sanctuary below. This is not good; this is how a building is slowly (or quickly) destroyed by water.

The church building is such an integral part of the neighborhood; help needs to come and I hope that the renovation for the new hall of fame starts as soon as possible.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Everett Engbers says:

    Thanks for posting your photographs of the damage. I had envisioned the entire tower collapsing and it’s good to see that it remains relatively intact. I wish they could turn this building into a vibrant community center. You’d think that some of the wealthy inhabitants of the CWE would get behind contributing to the repair and stabilization of the building. It’s Holy Corners for God’s sake which should be on a list of historic places. Does anyone know who owns this property? I hope it’s not another absentee real estate shark.

    1. Chris Naffziger says:

      It’s owned by Chippewa Lofts LLC. There is an effort currently underway to renovate the building into the Missouri Gospel Hall of Fame. They are currently in the fundraising stage of the campaign.

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