Extra-alarm fire wrecks Chinese-American Museum of Chicago, officials say.

By Deanese Williams-Harris and Dan P. Blake.
Chicago Tribune reporters.
September 20, 2008.

A Chinatown landmark that houses the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago was heavily damaged Friday by an extra-alarm fire, officials said.

The museum, which opened in 2005 in a former warehouse and grocery, had become a repository for photos and artifacts donated by community members.

The fire was reported shortly before 2 p.m. in the upper floors of the four-story building at 238 W. 23rd St., said Eve Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Fire Department. Flames could be seen shooting through the roof, she said.

The exhibits and artifacts were on the first and second floors, fire officials said.

“We did what we could,” Rodriguez said. “We laid tarp on the exhibits located on the lower floors.”

She said she did not know whether any exhibits were damaged.

Mary Ann Wong, a volunteer nurse at St. Therese Catholic School across from the museum, saw heavy smoke billowing from the roof and notified school officials. She later saw flames shooting out of the second-floor windows.

Her family, like many in Chinatown, donated photos and artifacts when the museum opened about three years ago.

“It’s so hurtful because the museum was part of our history,” Wong said. “Several families donated items so our children could learn about their history. There’s nothing else to give. A lot of that stuff was irreplaceable.”

The museum is run by the non-profit Chinatown Museum Foundation. Attempts to reach museum officials were unsuccessful.

Students at St. Therese Catholic School often used the museum, Wong said. It houses rotating exhibits, including artwork and writings, and serves as a research and education center.

Some consider the building, which was constructed in 1896, a neighborhood landmark. It was a warehouse and a grocery for decades before becoming a museum.

“A lot of us in Chinatown are aware of our history, when we were good enough to work here but not good enough to bring our families,” Wong said. “Just because you’re Chinese and you’re accepted doesn’t mean you always were. I learned this on my own, but our children need this museum so they can learn the lessons of the past.”

Wong said crews had been renovating the museum and that it was closed Friday.


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