No Injuries in Fire at Yeshiva Ketana of Manhattan

By Reuvain Borchardt

View of The Isaac L. and Julia B. Rice House, home of Yeshiva ketana of manhattan. (Americasroof/wikimediA)

NEW YORK — A fire in the landmark building of Yeshiva Ketana of Manhattan Wednesday afternoon left the building “a mess,” but there were no injuries and the yeshiva is expected to re-open in days, the principal told Hamodia.

The fire was reported in the walls of the first floor of the five-story building at West 89th Street and Riverside Drive, at 2:44 p.m., according to FDNY.

Twelve FDNY vehicles and 60 personnel responded to the scene, getting the fire under control by 3:40 p.m. There were no injuries.

Rabbi Ari Schonfeld, the yeshiva principal, told Hamodia that the building is “a mess” as a result of the fire, and that the yeshiva will be hosted in local shuls Thursday, but that he expects to re-open in two days. The yeshiva had recently invested heavily in renovating the building.

Fire trucks on the corner of West 89th Street and Riverside Drive, Wednesday. The yeshiva building is to the right. (Daniel Katzive/West Side Rag)

The building, known as the The Isaac L. and Julia B. Rice Mansion (or simply the “Rice Mansion” or “Rice House”), formerly housed Yeshivas Choftez Chaim-Radin, and is a landmark on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Isaac Rice, a wealthy German-American Jewish businessman and renowned chess master, purchased the land in 1899 for his mansion from William W. Hall, a Manhattan builder and real estate developer, the same year that the site for the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, diagonally across the street from the Rice Mansion, had been chosen, according to the West Side Rag website.

Rice sold his mansion in 1907 when his financial fortunes fell. But in in 1913, when the Royal British Navy placed an order for submarines from his Electric Boat Company, its stock price soared, and he sold his 16,000 shares for a profit of $2 million. The company is currently named General Dynamics Electric Boat, and builds submarines for the U.S. Navy.

Isaac’s wife, Julia Barnett Rice, is best remembered, according to West Side Rag, for establishing the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise, after she became enraged over the tugboat horns on the Hudson River, just steps from her mansion.

Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim-Radin acquired the building in 1954. But it was costly to maintain the aging structure, and in 1980, when a developer offered between $1.5 and $2 million for the property as the site of a 30-story tower-plaza building — with the understanding it would maintain several floors as a yeshiva — the yeshiva jumped at the opportunity to sell, according to the Dayton in Manhattan website. But preservationists like former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and violinist Itzhak Perlman were opposed to the alteration of this historic building, and a fierce landmark battle ensued.

To achieve landmark status, the Landmarks Preservation Commission had to prove that the mansion possessed special character, special historical or aesthetic interest, or value. Yeshiva principal Harav Moshe Feigelstock, zt”l, maintained it did not. “By me, Isaac Rice is not anybody,” he said.

But, despite the yeshiva’s objections, the landmark status was approved, and the building still stands, today as home of Yeshiva Ketana of Manhattan, and one of just two remaining Gilded Age mansions on Riverside Drive.

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