On December 29, 1837, a great fire broke out in the legendary palace of Hermitage, the-then residence of Russian emperors in St. Petersburg. Raging for 30 hours, it completely destroyed the second and the third floor of the building and irreparably damaged most of the decorations and foliage produced by outstanding architects Domenico Quarenghi and Bartolomeo Rastrelli.
Witnesses recalled having felt the “smell of smoke” two days before the disaster, being strongest in the Field Marshal Hall. The smell was attributed to a faulty chimney. This smell was particularly annoying starting on December 29, and seemed to die out by the end of the day, around 8 pm.
The flames of smoke which soon started to appear from the chimney pipe in the Field Marshal Hall and in the officer-on-duty room alarmed the servants. A fire squad examined the cellar and the chimney on the roof, lavishly watering the entire premise. At the same time, several firefighters went down to the basement where, as they thought, the fire was.
The air vent in the Field Marshal Hall connected to several chimneys which led to the palace pharmacy. The brickwork of the pharmacy’s chimney had a hole, which let all the warm air drain away, and was therefore always clogged up with a rag by the pharmacy servants. It was the burning rag that the firefighters thought caused the fire. Once they put it out, they calmed down; however, hardly a minute had passed when the smoke practically flooded the Field Marshal Hall through the dents in the parquet near the air vent.
They were pushed away as the huge flame rushed at them. Immediately it spread up to the neighboring Petrovsky Throne Hall. The attempts to put the fire out with the pipes were very unsuccessful, and the fire just kept spreading onto the staircases, the wooden gilded chandeliers, eating up the vaults of the Petrovsky Hall and reaching out to the lift slabs.
The situation was aggravated when, per the order of Emperor Nickolas I, the windows were broken open and, fed fresh air, the fire started to spread vigorously both ways, threatening to destroy the Emperor’s private rooms. The two palace fire squads and several city fire departments couldn’t effectively manage the constantly growing fire, which was eating up the dry parquet, the wooden architraves and the chandeliers, the plafond canvases and the entire vaults.
As it turned out, the upper floors had no fire walls, as the firefighters had to put them up to stop it from spreading but the fire was seizing more and more space. As witnesses recalled, more could have been done had the regiments summoned to assist in the extinguishing started helping right away, instead of standing outside doing nothing, as the bewildered administration didn’t know how to react to such disaster. They only appeared when the fire was towering above the building.
The soldiers were ordered to take out all the chattels and valuables they could carry from the palace, building up a huge pile of bizarre character, as it was combined out of expensive silverware, bronze clocks, and chandeliers, and the chattels of the cooks and chimney sweepers. The pile was of immense size -- according to contemporaries, by 1837 the Hermitage housed around 3,000 people. The fire was so huge it could be seen in villages in a 50 to 70 mile radius.
By 6 o’clock in the morning, the fire finally started to surrender. In the course of the investigation the police named the faulty chimney and the rags to be the main cause of the fire, also mentioning there might have also been serious mistakes in the original plan of the building -- that is, the presence of wooden elements too close to hot chimneys.
Though it appeared to be true that the original plan was in part to blame for the disaster, it was voiced only hesitantly, because the palace was constructed by Auguste Montferrand, Emperor Nicholas’s favorite architect. Though the Emperor recognized the architect’ fault in the matter, he still needed Montferrand for building St. Isaac’s Cathedral, but the architect had forever lost the Emperor’s trust and wasn’t invited to work on the Cathedral.
The fire led to many preventive measures being undertaken throughout the Palace. The water pipes were made out of lead, the staircases were made out of stone, and all the stoves and chimneys were totally rebuilt in compliance with fire security rules, and the building’s entire premises was supplied with fire walls.