Photos by Matt Wendland
Looking southeast, this stage has been used for years by organizations such as the Burien Actors Theatre and the Highliners to put on numerous productions. These are the remains from the Coney Island Christmas set.

The Burien Annex, Home of Burien Actors Theatre, Transform Burien & Other Local None Profits, Devastated by Early Morning Fire

By Matt Wendland

An early morning three-alarm fire on Tuesday, December 10, caused severe damage to the former Burien Community Center, the Burien Annex and according to deputy Myers of the King County Sheriff’s Office, investigators have determined that the fire was intentionally set.

The first report of the fire came into the Fire Department at 6:25 am. The fire was set near or within a porta-potty located at the southeast corner of the building. The flames spread from the base of the building to the attic space above the building’s auditorium. According to Penny Garrison, a longtime Burien resident living in the neighborhood who was out for a walk and reported the fire at 6:38 am, the flames could easily be seen far above the roofline, even from the opposite side of the building. “It seemed like no one had even seen the fire yet...There was no one else around at all” she recounted in an interview just a few hours after she first reported the fire.

The Burien Annex, located between 144th and 146th Street on 4th Avenue S.W., is the home of numerous Burien not-for-profit social and arts organizations. The building was constructed over farm land in 1947 and 1948 to be the original Chelsea Park Elementary school and the Highline School District’s 4th elementary school at the time. In 1976 the school was closed and the building became known as the Highline Community Center. The structure became the Burien Community Center in 1994 and became the Burien Annex once the former Burien Library, just one block away, was remodeled to become the new Burien Community Center in 2010. The Burien Annex is currently the home of the Burien Actors Theatre, the Hi-Liners youth theatre group, Transform Burien food/cloth bank and soup kitchen, Meals on Wheels, the Co-Op Preschool, and Para Los Niños, as well as the City of Burien’s AM radio station.

During the fire, some 75 fire fighters from across South King County were forced to remove large sections of the roof above the auditorium to stop the fire from continuing to spread. By the time City staff members were allowed into the building just before noon on Tuesday, the sky and nearby skatepark could be clearly seen through the large sections missing from the ceiling and walls. Below the damage were sets made for Burien Actors Theatre’s “Coney Island Christmas”, which was scheduled to run through December 22, laying under building material and ash.

According to Maggie Larrick, BAT’s Managing Director, and Eric Dickman, BAT’s Artistic Director, the Coney Island Christmas sets were not a total loss. In an interview in the days following the fire, Maggie and Eric said that all of the sets but a few wall panels were largely left undamaged despite being located on the stage directly below where the fire was put out.

“While some of the walls of the set were completely destroyed, we were really fortunate that none of the rolling furniture and the sets were majority damaged.” Maggie explained.

According to Eric, even before they had had to opportunity to see the results of the fire, the crew putting on Coney Island Christmas was already on the phones looking for places to make sure the play could finish out its schedule. While countless organizations from Tacoma to Seattle and even Eastern Washington offered their support with proposals to house the play, raise money, or help with sets, the group ultimately decided to move their production to the Highline Historical Society’s “Hope in Hard Times” pop up museum located at 216 S.W. 153rd Street in Burien.

“While many places, even actual theaters, were offering to let us do the play in their space, the Hope in Hard Times exhibit was the only venue that could house us for all the dates we needed.” Eric said before describing a message he received from HHS Managing Trustee, Cyndi Upthegrove. “Immediately we got a message from Cyndi that said, “My board said to make it happen to matter what it takes…” I think it’s ironic that a show called “Hope in Hard Times” is now the home of a play being restaged after surviving a major fire.” The Coney Island Christmas has already begun showing at the new location and will run through December 22nd.

Both the Burien Actors Theater and the Hi-Liners have shows scheduled in the Burien Annex in the near future but both organizations have released statements saying that they have no plans to cancel their shows and will be looking for temporary homes.

While the building was unoccupied and no one was hurt, damage from the fire to the Burien Annex is estimated at $150,000-plus. The Burien Annex is split into a north and south structures with the two theater groups housed in the south build where the fire occurred. While the other organizations are located in the north building, any organizations who use the kitchen, such as Transform Burien, are compromised by the fire as the kitchen is located in the room closest to the auditorium where the fire occurred.

The Tuesday morning fire isn’t the only damage the Burien Annex has recently suffered. Just days before on Sunday evening, volunteers from Taproot Church who had just finished serving meals with Transform Burien, noticed water dripping from the ceiling above the Para Los Niños offices. The group discovered a broken water line and were able to notify the fire department and City’s maintenance workers before the water caused an serious flooding in the rest of the building. If the group had not found the broken pipe before they locked up the facility, the water would have likely flooded the building for at least 12 hours as no one was schedule to use the building until the next day.

A reward of up to $10,000 is being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those involved in the fire. Anyone with information about the fire is asked to call 1-800-55-ARSON. Investigators are currently examining footage shot from outside surveillance cameras. No further information about the investigation has been released at this time. Organizations using the facility outside of the auditorium have been allowed to continue their normal operations since power was restored to the facility Tuesday afternoon.

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