Fire engulfs, destroys historic First Universalist Church in Southold

First Universilist Church in Southold in flames Saturday night. (Credit: Kathryn Zukowski)
First Universilist Church in Southold in flames Saturday night. (Credit: Kathryn Zukowski)

The historic First Universalist Church of Southold was reduced to ruins Saturday night by a fast-moving blaze that drew about 150 firefighters to the Main Road property as other neighbors and passersby watched the spectacle from the road.

The fire was first noticed just before 11:30 p.m. by Southold police officer Robert Haas, who alerted firefighters. The building was unoccupied at the time and no injuries were reported, police said.

The fire is not believed to be suspicious.fire aftermath

Southold Fire Department Chief Peggy Killian said the fire in the wooden structure “was probably going for awhile before we were called.”

“It was already coming through the exposure on the east side,” she said. “And probably within minutes went from the inside to the outside and wrapped around the whole church.”

Then the building collapsed.

She said firefighters from at least a half dozen department responded and battled the blaze from about 11:30 p.m to 4:30 a.m. Machinery was brought in this morning to remove debris so firefighters could douse remaining pockets of fire and smoke.

“When the floors collapse on top of each other you can’t get the fire out in between,” she said. “The fire got so hot that it burned the vinyl siding on the house next door. It burned all the electrical wires overhead and the cable wires.

“It was very hot. Very hot. Once it made it to the outside, you thought it was the summer.”

Ms. Killian lamented the loss of such a beautiful and historic building.

“It’s a shame, “ she said. “It’s a really pretty church.”

Southold police Detective Edward Grathwohl said it was still not known what started the fire.

“It was so fast moving and there’s nothing left to look at,” he said.

Det. Grathwohl was among the first on the scene Saturday night, at which point he only saw smoke.

“It’s a 150-year-old church; it went quickly,” he said.

The congregation’s pastor, the Rev. Jef Gamblee, who lives in Staten Island, said he made it on the scene about 2 a.m.

“We’re all grieving right now,” he said. “This is obviously a very big loss.”

Pastor Jef, as he’s known, led a special 10:30 a.m. Sunday service at the nearby Custer Institute & Observatory.custer small

He said firefighters were able to save the church’s sign, which was brought over to the Custer Institute, where congregants and supporters were gathering before the service.

“The church is the people,” he said. “The church is not the building. There’s certainly a lot of history there, but we can still come together.”

Peggy Richards and Kenneth MacAlpin of Greenport have been living at the church residence adjacent to the house of worship since their home on Kaplan Avenue burned down last month. Ms. Richards said Mr. MacAlpin came into the room late Saturday night and said he thought he smelled something burning.

“At first I just thought he was being paranoid after what we just went through,” she said. “I think we’re extra-sensitive to smoke right now.”

Ms. Richards, a member of the church for about seven years, quickly moved her car away from the church and the pair escaped any danger. She said they were eventually let back into the house around 4:30 a.m.

She said she thought of all the generous donations from the community that were inside the residence, as she watched the fire crackle and the church burst with flames Saturday night.

“I remember thinking, ‘My new beginning is in there,'” she said.

Several sources said Sunday that they believed the church was built around 1860, though the church was founded in 1835. However, in the Southold edition of the “Images of America” book series, Southold Historical Society director Geoffrey Fleming wrote that the building was erected in 1837 — a date confirmed by several online sources and prior Suffolk Times articles — and was designed by William D. Cochran.

A 1989 article in The Suffolk Times credits architect Richard Lathers with designing a restoration of the church in 1907. The church steeple was restored in 1989, several years after sustaining damage in Hurricane Gloria, according to a past Suffolk Times article.

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Firefighters dousing ‘hot spots’ within the fire’s wreckage Sunday morning. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Congregants and supporters arriving at Custer Institute & Observatory for a special service Sunday morning. (Credit: Grant Parpan)