Today one of my favorite places in the world burned down. I was out of town when most of the fire was consuming the Longfellow Park LDS Church building, so I didn’t see the roof cave in and the windows blow out. I didn’t watch the giant flames shooting out of the roof and the column of thick black smoke blotting out the sky. I found out about the fire about three hours after it started, and immediately drove as close to the building as I could (all the nearby streets were closed) and ran to the site. The first glimpse I got as I came around a bend in the road was of the walls – and the sky where the roof used to be. My chest felt tight and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. When I got to the church, flames and smoke were still coming out of the building and water was pouring out the doors and running in rivers down the steps.
I spent the rest of the day helping salvage whatever we could. Fortunately the fire and subsequent water deluge didn’t destroy most of the hundreds of books in the Institute library, some of which are rare and worth tens of thousands of dollars. The Quaker church across the way offered us room for the books and we set up drying stations in the basement for the ones that had become wet. We trucked quite a few loads of stuff to another building across town (a former factory where the Cambridge wards have been meeting for several years). I helped carry chairs and shelves and refrigerators and filing cabinets and dishes and office supplies and half-ruined artwork. I watched as a couple of guys began taking apart a piano that was partially soaked and that will probably have to be discarded. Every once in a while, as I set down yet another box of plates or stack of file folders, it would hit me that the reason I was right there, right then, was that my chapel was gone. Is gone.
Many other people have written beautiful posts about the Longfellow Park building – see Natalie‘s or Laura‘s or Kate‘s or Kelly‘s. I don’t know that I can wax as eloquent as they do, but I can say that I loved this building. It wasn’t a typical Mormon church; in fact, I’ve never seen another Mormon church that looked anything like it. I loved the tidy and charming red-brick-and-white-trim exterior; I loved the rose window (very unusual in a Mormon church) that invited contemplation; I loved the ultra-devoted über-Americana decor in the basement. I loved the bay window room and the jerry-rigged couches that fell apart at the slightest provocation and I loved the large upstairs windows overlooking the gym, from where many a near-future interviewee enjoyed an aerial view of the day’s Munch and Mingle successes and failures. I loved the random secret passageway between the gym and the Relief Society room, where I once sat on the stairs in the dark and cried and cried over someone who didn’t like me back. I loved the Steinway baby grand piano and the choir seat without an armrest in the now-destroyed chapel. I loved and still love the wonderful friends I made through church meetings and activities – in many cases the best friends of my life. The Longfellow Park chapel was a unique building that served as a house of worship for many, many brilliant and talented people.
It’s hard to believe it’s gone. What can be saved will be; the steeple survived the fire, and current rumor is that some of the walls may form part of the next building as well. As long as the character of the former building and the congregations who used it remains, all will be well.
For those who want to read or see more, there’s an arm-in-arm stroll down memory lane with dozens of people here. The Boston Globe has pictures here, and there’s some dramatic footage of the fire here. (It was quite thrilling to watch a couple friends of mine carry the painting of Christ and the Rich Young Man – one of my very favorites – to safety. We all clapped as K and N carried it across the lawn.)