Tulsa Fire Crews Battle Synagogue Fire

Tuesday, January 27th 2009, 8:32 am
By: News On 6

By Jennifer Loren, The News On 6

TULSA, OK -- Fire destroys a Tulsa treasure.  Investigators say the flames at the Old Temple Israel could have been sparked by a homeless person trying to stay warm.  A California developer had planned to turn the historic building into a community arts center.  Those plans are now on hold and neighbors fear the building may be lost forever.

Anne Pollard is the Riverview Neighborhood Association president.  She also lives across the street from the Old Temple Israel and Monday night watched it burn for hours.

"The actual dome that covered the rooftop was part of the structural support," said Anne Pollard.

Tulsa firefighters tried to save the building, but quickly realized it wasn't safe.  The roof and floors collapsed, leaving only the unstable brick walls.

"We're really at this point are trying to say how can we preserve this structure, how can we let the neighborhood have it back and maybe rejuv, rehab it and make it a valuable structure in the community and how do we conduct our investigation safely," said Tulsa Fire Captain Michael Baker.

The old charred walls have a lot of history in Tulsa.  It was the first synagogue in Oklahoma.  For years it sat abandoned, although it was not unusual for homeless people to camp there.       

But, that was all about to change.

"It's Temple Israel and it was built in about 1910. It's on the corner of 14th and Cheyenne and I just fell in love with the building," said developer Kevin Stephens.

Stephens bought the building and had plans to put it on the national historic registry, and then turn it into a community arts center.  Neighbors were looking forward to the building's new life.

"We're so excited to see this kind of development happen and you know it's a tragedy. You hate to see something like this happen to a building that would have celebrated its 100th year," said Anne Pollard.

The developer plans to have engineers look at the building to see what's salvageable.  He says he wants to salvage what he can and definitely have a community center in that spot.

Firefighters say it's still too dangerous to go inside and investigate the cause of the fire.

Watch News On 6 Anchor Jennifer Loren's report on the big plans a California real estate developer had for the building, before Tuesday morning's fire.