When firefighters arrived Thursday morning at the abandoned church near downtown Los Angeles, they quickly determined they could not enter the frail building, and within minutes, it began crumbling.
The fire broke out about 6:20 a.m. at 720 W. Washington Blvd. Firefighters were driven back by the blaze, said Erik Scott, a Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman, and instead had to take a defensive approach, hosing down the flames from all possible angles.
As 133 firefighters joined in the battle, the roof and other pieces of the building fell into the chapel’s main congregation space, like a “log into a fireplace,” LAFD spokesman Brian Humphrey said. Thick, gray smoke drifted over the 10 and 110 freeways, causing a backup because of poor visibility.
After a quick inspection, officials slapped a red piece of paper onto the building’s graffiti-tagged entrance: “Unsafe: Do not enter or occupy.” Flames were still coming from the church, prompting officials to close the street between Figueroa Street and Union Avenue, Scott said.
Fire officials were heartbroken as they learned more about the old, Mission-style building, its face engraved with detailed markings and scarred with deep cracks.
“Our heart sank,” Humphrey said. “We had been hoping beyond hope that this building could be resurrected.”
The church, built in 1924, had once housed the first full-service mortuary in Los Angeles, owned and operated by the influential Pierce brothers. The building was designed by the Milwaukee Building Co., which also designed Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and Egyptian Theatre, according to documents by architecture firm Jag Architects, which was aiming to redevelop the building into apartments in 2015.
Urbanize LA reported in February that Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo introduced a motion to convert the building into an affordable-housing complex. A spokesman for his office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
For decades, the building was one of more than 20 mortuaries on Washington Boulevard between Figueroa and Union, leading to the area’s nickname “Mortuary Row” in the 1930s and ’40s. The structure, which later housed a number of houses of worship, was added to the city’s list of historic-cultural monuments in the 1990s.
The Pierce brothers, who were livery stable owners, providing horse-drawn drays for cargo and passengers, became business owners who changed Los Angeles at a time when the city’s population spiked from 11,000 to 50,000.
Clarence Pierce, who joined Fred and William Pierce in running the mortuary, attended USC in 1889 and became a physician, at one point delivering half of Los Angeles’ babies. Then in 1947, he helped found the Clarence W. Pierce School of Agriculture in Woodland Hills, now Pierce College.
The fire’s cause is still being investigated, Humphrey said. There’s no indication that anyone was inside the building when the fire broke out, and firefighters were able to protect surrounding structures.
The cause “may be nothing nefarious,” Humphrey said, but investigators hope to interview passersby, surrounding business owners and the church’s former occupants to determine what might have sparked the blaze.
LAFD notified the House of Worship Task Force, a group of law enforcement officials from the LAFD, LAPD, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI, about the fire. The organization formed in the 1990s and is called whenever a place of worship is targeted in suspected arsons.
“It’s an iconic building, and a central part of Los Angeles history,” Humphrey said of the church. “To have this last remnant — it’s really a heartache for us to see it this severely damaged.”