Firefighters work to snuff embers at Jacob's Pillow

Firefighters work to extinguish a fire Tuesday at the Doris Duke Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket.

BECKET — After a fire of still unknown origin destroyed the Doris Duke Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow, well-wishes poured in from around the world. And the leader of the esteemed dance institution made a promise.

“We will rebuild,” Pamela Tatge, the organization’s artistic and executive director, said in a Tuesday afternoon Tweet posted by Jacob’s Pillow.

The Doris Duke Theatre has been an integral part of Jacob’s Pillow offerings since it opened in 1990 on the organization’s 220-acre campus, Deputy Director A. J. Pietrantone said, offering a versatile, “black-box type” performance space that complimented the Ted Shawn Theatre, which was spared in Tuesday’s fire.

“We would envision that we would create a replacement theater,” said Pietrantone “It’s [the Doris Duke Theatre] such a part of the fabric of our history.”

A construction crew that arrived at Jacob’s Pillow early Tuesday morning to work on an archival expansion project encountered the blaze, said Pietrantone, who was alerted before 7 a.m. via a phone call from the Jacob’s Pillow groundskeeper. He made the hour-long drive from his home to Becket, and by the time he arrived, he saw fire crews from six different communities working to quash the flames as smoke billowed into the sky.

The state Department of Fire Services confirmed Wednesday that there were problems with a fire-suppression system at Jacob’s Pillow, where the fast-moving blaze destroyed one of the venue’s two indoor stages.

According to Becket Fire Chief Paul Mikaniewicz, none of the hydrants worked initially. An underground pump that pushes water from a small pond to the Pillow’s hydrants and sprinklers had failed, prompting crews to draft water directly from the pond, said Mark Hanford, a retired Becket firefighter and former fire chief, on Tuesday.

In an interview Wednesday, Mikaniewicz said tanker trucks were swiftly summoned from neighboring departments to ferry water to the blaze. He spoke after stopping by Jacob’s Pillow to survey the scene, and reported the fire had not relit during the overnight hours.

“There were no rekindles, nothing like that,” he said.

A cause has not been determined, and the fire is being investigated by the Becket fire and police departments and by State Police assigned to the state Fire Marshal’s Office, according to a spokesperson.

Jacob’s Pillow’s insurance company is investigating “issues with the fire suppression system,” said Department of Fire Services spokesperson Jennifer Mieth in a brief news release.

The inferno punctuated a painful stretch of months, which saw the cancellation of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival for the first time in the event’s 88-year run, prompting deep layoffs and pay cuts, said Pietrantone, who added that remaining staff has worked remotely since March.

“That,” Pietrantone said of the festival’s cancelation, “in itself has been difficult to work through. We lost half of our income this year.”

Jacob’s Pillow pivoted, and offered eight weeks of free, coronavirus-friendly online programming during the summer’s Virtual Festival, and continued screening work online during the fall season. But like fellow arts and performance institutions across the county, Jacob’s Pillow has suffered a steep drop in revenue during the pandemic, and is now planning for the coming season, which remains at the mercy of the pandemic, said Pietrantone.

After the fire, words of support flowed from communities across the world directly to staffers, and into Jacob’s Pillow inbox, he said.

“All of the staff individually, as well as our general mailbox, have been flooded with emails of support from around the world,” Pietrantone said. “Quite frankly, so many artists have worked here and been touched by the organization.”

Barrington Stage Company has established a Jacob’s Pillow Rescue Fund on its website, pledging to donate 100 percent of proceeds to the Becket dance institution.

“We are stricken by the tragic fire that destroyed Jacob’s Pillow’s Doris Duke Theatre,” read a message on the fund’s webpage. “As our neighboring cultural institution and a treasured Berkshire landmark, we ask our supporters to make a donation to Jacob’s Pillow in their time of extreme need.”

The Doris Duke Theatre was conceived as a space where artists could try out bold and novel concepts. Its loss dealt an incalculable blow to Jacob’s Pillow.

“We have no way of quantifying the loss,” said Pietrantone.