Historic dance center Jacob’s Pillow rocked by theater-destroying fire

Enough Already, 2020

Historic dance center Jacob’s Pillow rocked by theater-destroying fire

Doris Duke Theater at Jacob's Pillow, now lost to fire. (Christoper Duggan/Courtesy Jacob's Pillow)

The Doris Duke Theater at Jacob’s Pillow, a celebrated dance school and performance venue in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts that hosts the oldest summertime festival of dance in the United States, has been lost to a massive fire.

Flames began to envelop the 230-seat theater shortly before 7:00 a.m. on November 17 at the National Historic Landmark District-listed compound spread across 220 idyllic hillside acres of former farmland within the town of Becket. As of this writing, the cause of the six-alarm fire, which took 30 firefighters to control at its peak as reported by the Berkshire Eagle, is unknown. While a State Fire Marshal-headed investigation into what sparked the devastating blaze continues, leadership at Jacob’s Pillow has already vowed to rebuild.

“While we have lost some precious, irreplaceable items, those experiences and memories will last forever. We are heartbroken and we are relieved that no one was hurt,” said Pamela Tatge, executive and artistic director of Jacob’s Pillow, in a statement. “On behalf of everyone at the Pillow, we are grateful for the firefighters and officials who have responded so quickly to this devastating emergency on our grounds. We are grateful for the outpouring of support from around the world we have already received. We will rebuild.”

A wooden structure that opened to the public in 1990, the Doris Duke Theater was the newer and smaller of the two indoor performance spaces at Jacob’s Pillow. And while only 30 years old, the theater—“a cross between a sleek dance studio and a cavernous barn,” per the New York Times—blended seamlessly into its rustic environment populated by both new and older buildings including Blake’s Barn, an 18th-century structure relocated to the campus and renovated to accommodate exhibition space and a reading room.

The other larger indoor performance space, the Ted Shawn Theater, was completed in 1942, just a little over a decade after Jacob’s Pillow was established by modern dance trailblazers Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis as a dance-specific artistic retreat, and was the first American performance venue specifically designed for dance. The newest (and largest) major building on the historic Jacob’s Pillow campus, the 6,000-square-foot Perles Family Studio designed by Boston-based Flansburgh Architects, was completed in 2017. And while the Doris Duke Theater was completely destroyed, no other studio, performance, or administrative buildings on the campus were damaged by the blaze and no one, as mentioned by Tatge, was injured. When the fire was finally extinguished on Tuesday afternoon, only the theater’s sign was salvageable.

When firefighters first arrived on the scene a little after 7:00 a.m., they were confronted by not only a raging fire that “sounded like a tornado had ripped through” but nonfunctional hydrants, which as reported by the Eagle, was the result of a failure of the underground pump that feeds water from an on-site pond into the hydrants and interior sprinklers spread across the campus. As a result, firefighters shuttled water directly from the pond in an effort to tame the blaze. The pump was later fixed and at least one hydrant was rendered operable.

“That’s a hard call,” retired Becket firefighter and former fire chief Mark Hanford told the Eagle when asked if the fire could have been more easily contained if the pump hadn’t failed and the hydrants were working. “There are so many things that could have gone right and so many that could have gone wrong. Let me put it this way: Water’s a big help.”

Like many cultural institutions reeling from the financial fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, the fire follows a particularly taxing rough patch for Jacob’s Pillow given that its flagship annual summer dance festival, which attracts crowds in the thousands, was canceled due to the crisis. As detailed in a press statement, some activity had resumed at Jacob’s Pillow in recent months including the reopening of housing and studio space for COVID-compliant Pillow Lab residencies.