Brooklyn Heights

Throwback Thursday: The demise of the Hotel Margaret

Old photos show the aftermath of 1980 fire at 97 Columbia Heights; a Jehovah's Witnesses building on the site is now for sale

October 27, 2016 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
This dramatic picture taken by Brooklyn Heights Press photographer Amy Davis in February 1980 shows the Hotel Margaret after a devastating five-alarm fire. Eagle file photos by Amy Davis

A blaze brought about the demise of the landmarked Hotel Margaret. A five-alarm blaze.

 

The fire was so bright on that freezing February 1980 night that Brooklyn Heights Press photographer Amy Davis could see its hellish glow from her home in New Jersey.

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She rushed to Brooklyn Heights to photograph the conflagration at the famous inn, which at that time was being converted to a co-op apartment building by developer Ian Bruce Eichner.

Davis also snapped dramatic shots in the cold light of day depicting the dire scene at 97 Columbia Heights.

In one, torrents of water that had been used to quell the inferno are frozen in jagged rows of sharp icicles strung across the hotel’s fire escapes. Ominous clouds of steam billow in the background.

In another grim photo, the roof of the hotel is gone, along with a big chunk of the corner of the Romanesque Revival-style building.

In a third image, firefighters wear knit ski masks along with their helmets to protect their faces from frostbite.

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A fourth photo shows a shocked, shivering crowd gathered outside the ruined hotel, which had been built in 1889.

The Heights Press is a sister publication of the Brooklyn Eagle, which is why we have access to Davis’ stunning photos.

According to “Fire Department, City of New York,” a book by Paul Hashagen, the temperature was 14 degrees and a 40-mile-per-hour wind was blowing around 4 a.m. on Feb. 1, 1980, when firefighters were called to the Hotel Margaret conflagration.

Heavy flames were first seen near the top of the hotel. Then the fire traveled down through the building in an elevator shaft. A solarium collapsed, which destroyed a big chunk of the roof.

It took firefighters more than three and a half hours to bring the fire under control. They worked at the Columbia Heights scene for more than 10 days until “final extinguishment,” Hashagen writes.

After the Hotel Margaret’s destruction, co-op converter Eichner spent six years tangled in legal disputes with Brooklyn Heights organizations about the height of the building he would be allowed to construct at 97 Columbia Heights.

Eichner wanted to construct a residential building that would be 150 feet tall, like the hotel had been. Lawyers for the Brooklyn Heights Association argued that the neighborhood’s special limited-height rule should be followed, meaning the new building should be only 50 feet tall.

In the end, the tower was 100 feet high, city Buildings Department records indicate.

Eichner started work on his new development at the site in 1986. In November of that year, the Jehovah’s Witnesses purchased the project from him, city Finance Department records indicate.

For three decades, the 97-unit residential building that the Watchtower constructed was a home for staffers at the religious organization’s world headquarters in Brooklyn Heights.

Now the Watchtower has relocated its headquarters to upstate Warwick, NY — and put 97 Columbia Heights up for sale as it continues to liquidate its Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO real estate holdings.

 


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