Shortly after noon on April 15, 1958, a group of electricians working on the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art decided to indulge in the day’s favorite lunchtime custom—a smoke.
The workers had been hired to make repairs to the air-conditioning unit in a part of the building that housed the museum’s permanent collection. Nearly two decades before, MoMA had been one of the first major museums in the world to bring the modern marvel of AC to its galleries. But now, their system was sadly out of date, and the museum had undertaken a month-long project to install a new unit and make updates to the system.
So, when the noon hour rolled around on this mid-April day, the electricians hired to do the job dropped their tools where they were and indulged in what was likely a much-needed break. Drop cloths covered the floor, open paint cans sat nearby, and it is believed a pile or two of sawdust were left where they had fallen.
As to what happened next, ++The New York Times reported The New York Times reported that authorities believed a spark from one of the workmen’s cigarettes fluttered away and landed on the saw dust, which went up in flames, igniting the drop cloths followed by the highly flammable cans of paint.
With that one little spark, a deadly chain reaction was set in motion that would result in a destructive, three-alarm fire that raged through MoMA.
The blaze, “brought traffic to a standstill in the Fifth Ave. area for almost four hours and left the modernistic glass facade of the museum, one of the city’s showplaces, a smashed and blackened network of broken windows and streaked stone,” reporter Judith Crist wrote in the next morning’s edition of the New York Herald Tribune.
It was an event that ended in tragedy. When the smoke cleared, one electrician—55-year-old Ruby Geller from Brooklyn—was dead. He had succumbed to smoke inhalation and was found lying face-down in a six-inch pool of water on the third floor. Five hundred museum visitors and employees had been evacuated from the scene, with three—in addition to 28 firemen—sustaining injuries.
The human toll of the disaster was joined by the destruction of a priceless work of art. Five paintings, including a relatively small seven-foot Monet “Water Lilies,” had been damaged in the blaze. (A later account in The New York Times described the small Monet as having come “through the fire looking like a toasted marshmallow.”) But the worst loss was the total destruction of a giant, 18.5-foot Monet painting also titled “Water Lilies.”
Only three years earlier, MoMA had been proud to announce that it was the first public institution to acquire one of the larger pieces from Monet’s famous series. The artist, who was also an avid gardener, had moved into a new countryside home in Giverny, France, in 1883.
Soon after, he set about turning the surrounding property into his dream estate. He planted vibrant and lively flowers on the grounds, installed water lilies in the property’s pond, and created Japanese-style gardens.
“Suddenly I had the revelation of how magical my pond is. I took up my palette. Since that time I have scarcely had any other model,” Monet said.
And this remained the case for the last three decades of his life, during which time he painted nearly 250 different pieces inspired by his garden. Most now consider these paintings some of the artist’s greatest works. But in Monet’s day, his “Water Lilies” series wasn’t quite as popular; several of his contemporaries criticized the highly Impressionistic effect of the blurred scenes and colors as more representative of his failing eyesight than his exceptional artistic ability.
Monet was reported to have responded to this criticism with the wise resignation that, “ They will perhaps adapt themselves to it in time, but I came too soon.”
The time of the “Water Lilies” arrived in the 1950s, when the art world began to take note of just how incredible this body of work was. MoMA was on the cutting edge and acquired the large painting in 1955; on its arrival, it was described as “shimmering like an Impressionist’s version of paradise.” The smaller Monet was purchased just one year later, two years before fire would strike the museum.
When the fire broke out, many of the building’s occupants escaped through adjoining buildings, including an annex on one side that housed the museum’s offices and the Whitney Museum of American Art, which was located behind MoMA and had several shared doors. One group was stranded on the sixth-floor penthouse garden until firemen could clear the stairwells of a thick black smoke, while two women visitors were evacuated through a smashed window and guided down a ladder extending up from the street below.
Reports in the New York Herald Tribune praised most for acquitting themselves well in the emergency. Except for one unfortunate lady, that is, who had the distinction of panicking, breaking a window, and chucking her hat, purse, and shoes out onto the street below. Firemen rescued her soon after, and led her to an elevator just a short distance away that was still in operation. (From our comfort in the all-knowing future, we’ll refrain from commenting on the frightening use of elevators in this rescue story.)
Once safely on the ground, the building’s staff and visitors discovered that one of the storage rooms on the second floor that housed over 300 works of art was in danger. The fire department had intentionally used smaller hoses and nozzles in an attempt to keep the water damage to a minimum, but this room was flooding at a frightening rate. A group of survivors, including many of the museum’s female employees and Nelson Rockefeller, who was chairman of the board, decided to brave the suffocating heat and smoke once again and try to save the priceless works.
“The volunteers, all of whom had been trapped for periods of up to one hour on various floors of the museum, waited only long enough to clear their lungs naturally or by pulling at an inhalator before making their way back into the smoke-filled building,” Paul Tobenkin reported in the New York Herald Tribune on April 16, 1958.
“In groups of five or six, many with noses and mouths covered by handkerchiefs like bandits in a Western movie, the group took the elevator to the storage room. Here they formed a ‘bucket brigade’ operation, passing the paintings from hand to hand until they reached the elevator.”
While these heroes rescued much of MoMA’s permanent collection, they could not save the large Monet, which had been hanging close to where the fire broke out. At the time it was destroyed, this “Water Lillies” was valued at $40,000, but had it survived, it would undoubtedly be worth a whole lot more. On June 24, 2008, Christie’s set a new record for the most expensive Monet ever sold—Water Lily Pond went for $80.5 million.
But money is beside the point when it comes to an exceptional work of art that is now missing from history. It is an irreplaceable loss—for everyone except the MoMA that is.
The museum received around $300,000 in insurance payouts for the damage done that mid-April day. The directors took the money and, a year later, ++they bought a new Monet from the artist’s son Michel. This time, they went with the now celebrated “Water Lilies” triptych. It is a stunning work, and one that some have quietly suggested may be even more exceptional than the original acquisition.