In Milwaukee History

This morning, Trinity begins to assess the damage and move forward.

UPDATED: Trinity Lutheran begins work to assess damage from devastating fire

When Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Pastor Emeritus Hunter Hoffman retired on the first of the year, he thought he'd take it easy and go fishing.

Instead, he will spend this morning with an insurance adjuster and the fire marshal, walking through the remains of the church, 1046 N. 9th St., which was devastated by fire Tuesday afternoon.

Hunter's involvement will now likely continue much longer than he expected.

"My wife kept saying I should retire and relax," he said.

Hoffman – who was a bricklayer for 27 years before becoming a pastor – doesn't have high hopes for the future of the building.

"The only thing that might be saved is the north tower," said Hoffman, who served the congregation for 19 years. He was just the ninth pastor at Trinity in 171 years.

"The rest is toast. If might have been different if it was solid brick construction, as the plans originally called for, but because they wanted to save a little money they went with a brick veneer over wood lath.

"There's nothing left on the inside. It's a total loss."

Preliminary estimates place the damage at $13 million for the building and $4 million for its contents.

Later, at an early afternoon press conference, Missouri Synod Mission Executive Rev. Jonah P. Burakowski said that after finding a worship site for this Sunday, work would begin on finding a longer term temporary home, and that the goal is to rebuild and "return the congregation to this corner."

Whether or not the church is rebuilt also depends on how the insurance company, the fire marshal and other such forces view it, Hoffman said.

At the press conference, Milwaukee Fire Dept. Chief Mark Rohlfing declined to say what caused the fire, pending a full investigation, but he did say that it did not appear to be arson.

"Because the fire started at the top and worked its way down, it went crazy," Hoffman said. "It was fully engulfed in 30 minutes."

There was no sprinkler system in the church, but, Hoffman added, "there's no sprinkler system in the world that would've stopped it."

The fire marshal did not enter the building last night, Hoffman said, because there were hot spots that remained. They will go inside and assess the damage today.

"They wanted me to be there to show them around," said the retired pastor, who, according to Chris Behnke, director of parish education at Trinity, "loved, loved, loved the building."

"It's a devastating loss because it's such an iconic building," Hoffman said. "Historic preservationists believed it was unique in the country because of the way it was built. And inside, the altar, the pulpit, the pews, all virgin pine, oak and ash, which doesn't exist anymore."

Hoffman also said the building's windows were not stained glass but instead were created via a special process invented in Germany in 1875. Because windows made with that process tended to break easily, they were only made for about 20 years.

The ones at Trinity were believed to be among the longest-surviving – if not the longest-surviving – in the world, Hoffman said.

Behnke said that this morning she received word that the pews and the floor survive in the sanctuary. The adjacent office building is OK, but will require a clean-up before mold begins to set in.

In the early afternoon Burakowski showed me photos he took inside the building – which he wants the congregation to see before they are released publicly – and the images seemed to confirm Hoffman's presumption that most everything inside was destroyed.

Burakowski said that the organ did not survive and the pipes that remain are bent and damaged. However, some of the altar survived thanks to an umbrella-like canopy above it that appears to have protected it when the roof caved in.

Here is how the altar looked before the fire:

Cleanup crews carried out paintings from the altar, as well as a crucifix that stood upon it, on Wednesday afternoon.

Beyond that, we will have to wait to learn more about the condition of the building and how much of it, if any, can be saved and rebuilt.

"It's just sad, but Job had the perfect answer: the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord," Hoffman said. "It is what it is. We have to move forward. The first order of business is to find out where we will worship this Sunday."


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