A paper burns

By DAVE O'BRIEN  |  July 12, 2007

“For years I’ve been afraid of something like this happening,” said Donald Shambroom, the artist who reported the fire, and who has had a studio in the building for eight years. “Because of all of the development in the area I thought I’d have two years left in the building at the most.” And no, he wasn’t insured. “It was not possible for an artist to get fire insurance in that building,” he said. So the fire destroyed about three years worth of Shambroom’s work, including the murals he’d been designing for a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Luckily, however, he had recently had the works photographed, so they can be reproduced. “I’m going to do it,” he said. “I’m not going to let this set back my career, but it’s going to be a challenge.”

And for Brenda Lowen-Siegel, a painter whose third-floor studio was directly above the spot where the fire began, it’s going to be a bit more than that. “I lost all the paintings of my life, from graduate school until now,” she said. “I’ve lost my whole past.” Similarly, the Gay Community News — which had grown into a serious journal of gay news, culture, and opinion, with a national reputation — has lost a big piece of its past, and has always just barely scraped by financially anyway. It now must rely on the generosity of the community at large if it is to survive.

Finally, if the burned-out building has to be demolished, the city of Boston will have lost a crucial piece of its past as well. This gray, granite structure was built in the 1840s, and may be the only remaining downtown commercial structure of its type. “I think it’s a very important building historically,” said Brian Powell, a student of Boston’s architecture who researched this building for the Boston Landmarks Commission. “It’s not important in the sense that the Old State House and the Trinity Church are, but it is an exemplar of the commercial buildings of Boston during a real golden age. There was a time when this was a granite city, and this building is the only real survivor.”

This piece of urban history, ironically, is also one of the very few survivors of the Great Boston Fire of 1872, which started in a warehouse a mere two blocks away. Now, who will be the survivors of the Bromfield Street fire of ’82? Well, the artists will continue to create, and though they’ve lost a part of their community, what remains of it is responding to their plight. “I love Boston and I intend to stay,” said Donald Shambroom. “I really appreciate the support I’ve gotten from the art community.” “I was carrying out my paintings, and they were all ruined,” said Brenda Lowen-Siegel. “I sat down on the curb and a woman — a bag lady really — came up and asked me if I needed some money for lunch. It was so empathetic, and so kind.” The Gay Community News has been getting offers of help and temporary office space as well.  

Unfortunately, though, the comments of passerby last Wednesday were not uniformly supportive.

As GCN staffers were lugging out their file cabinets, and trying to piece together charred back copies of the paper, one elderly fellow finally figured out just what sort of a publication this was. Pointing at the pile of papers, he suddenly announced, “It’s a real shame — except for this.” And the GCN people stared back at him in disbelief.

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