Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mystery Fire Guts Protected Building

MTA courtyard view of the gutted building at 19/18 2nd Brestskaya Ulitsa.
A mysterious fire swept through a mansion in central Moscow late Wednesday, gutting a municipally protected building that was apparently being used to illegally house migrant workers.

The destruction of the early 20th-century Art Nouveau building is the latest blow to Moscow’s architectural heritage, which preservationists say is disappearing at a rapid rate.

The cause of the blaze at the building at 19/18 2nd Brestskaya Ulitsa was under investigation Thursday.

A Kyrgyz woman, who gave her name only as Asya, said her son had been staying in the building for the past two days while working at a store.

“My son’s documents are in there. He wasn’t there, he was at work,” she said. “His things, his clothes were there. He has nothing.”

A crowd of about 50 migrants gathered outside the building late Wednesday. They were reluctant to talk, and those approached by a reporter denied that anyone was living in the building.

But Nina Terentyeva, a pensioner who lives on nearby Vasilyevskaya Ulitsa, showed photographs of the interior, which she said she took to persuade officials to evict illegal residents.

The photographs show wallpapered rooms packed with mattresses on the floor. Residents had access to a toilet and basin and electric appliances.

Several fire risks are apparent. One picture shows an electric heater on the floor, while another shows a pile of cigarette butts in a trash chute.

Migrants moved into the building in August 2008, Terentyeva said.

She said she visited the building last week with a deputy head of the Presnensky police precinct, who promised to discuss the matter with other officials. No one answered the phone at the police precinct Thursday afternoon.

The gutted building is a local landmark, with its jutting oriel windows and lions’ heads over its main door. Built in 1909 to a design by architect Lev Kekushev, it was listed as an “object of cultural heritage” in 2008.

Kekushev “was one of the leading and most prolific architects of Moscow Art Nouveau and devised a lot of the ‘signature’ features of the style,” said Edmund Harris, an activist with the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society, or MAPS. The building was highlighted as “at risk” in MAPS reports in 2007 and again this year.

Authorities had designated the building as hazardous and the residents had been evicted, said preservationist Konstantin Mikhailov. “According to the law, no people are supposed to live in such buildings,” he said.

Such empty buildings are particularly vulnerable, Mikhailov said. “Some burn, some fall apart, some become criminal dens,” he said.

He said, though, that this building “was in a pretty decent condition, it could have been restored.”

The site is far from invisible to planning officials. It stands almost opposite the Institute of the General Plan and next to the Mosproyekt-2 architectural bureau. In 2007, a Moscow city government order called for preliminary plans to be drawn up for “a complex of buildings” at the site. The investor was named as OOO Finansist.

The order was canceled just weeks ago, on Sept. 4, after the building was listed as an object of cultural heritage.

The building is part of the Institute of Automatization of Planning, Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman Yevgeny Bobylev said.

He said he had no information on the building being used as a dormitory. He described it as “half-emptied of residents.”

An institute spokeswoman said she had no comment on the fire.

The building’s wooden floors fell through in the fire, Bobylev said.

He said the building was “already partly being prepared for reconstruction.”