The Filene Center, the performing arts theater at Wolf Trap Farm Park, was destroyed last night in a spectacular four-alarm fire that sent wind-whipped flames leaping 50 to 60 feet in the air.
Although 100 Fairfax County firefighters battled the blaze for hours, the sprawling steel and cedar building, a major cultural asset for the area and the nation and home to hundreds of musical and dramatic performances over the past 11 years, was engulfed in flames and declared a total loss.
"I'm devastated," said Larisa Wanserski, a spokeswoman for the foundation that runs the theater, as she stood in the 117-acre park between Rte. 7 and the Dulles Airport Access Road. But, she added, "We'll rebuild."
Within minutes after being reported at 9:45 p.m., the fire was ripping through the building's tin roof, blazing beams and timbers were sagging and collapsing, and--in the words of a nearby resident--the center was "just flames and sparks and smoke."
Winds gusting to more than 30 miles an hour fanned the flames and flung burning debris into trees and brush surrounding the theater, setting off a number of brush fires that briefly threatened homes in the area.
Neighborhood residents hosed down the roofs of their houses and went into the woods with shovels and trash cans full of water to prevent the spread of the flames, which witnesses said scould be seen from as far as three miles away.
By early this morning, the threat to adjoining areas apparently had subsided, but fire officials said it would be hours before the fire in the Filene Center itself could be extinguished.
As firefighters continued to spray the blazing building with water drawn from as far away as Rte. 7, officials said the collapsing roof and ceiling was impeding their effort by preventing them from entering the structure.
The cause of the fire, which one official said was believed to have broken out in the stage area, could not be determined immediately. Several neighbors interviewed last night said they heard a loud noise that sounded like an explosion shortly before the blaze was reported.
The fire was spotted first by a U.S. Park Police officer patrolling the area, and the county fire department was quickly notified. The first of the 20 firefighting vehicles arrived within minutes, but too late to make much of a difference, fire officials said.
"It burned like a doggone barn," said one fire official on the scene.
The theater, which provided 3,500 seats under the structure's roof with room for about 3,000 additional patrons on a sprawling lawn behind, was apparently unoccupied at the time the fire broke out, and there were no reports of injuries.
The performing arts season at the federally owned park, generally confined to the summer months, was not scheduled to begin until June 8. The first performance was to be a New York City Opera production of "The Merry Widow."
What arrangements or adjustments would be made for that performance and the rest of the season, which generally includes a wide range of music and dance attractions, was not known.
Sandra Alley, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, said that as far as she knew, there were no contingency plans.
"We just never expected anything like this," she said.
However, Wanserski said that ticket holders would receive full refunds for any show missed.
And John F. Herrity, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said he intended to try to formulate plans for putting on as much of the scheduled season as possible.
"We're going to move to get local business executives to meet Tuesday to get the ball rolling," he said.
The center, which cost $2.3 million to build 11 years ago, was heavily damaged by a fire about three months before it was to open.
On the morning of March 13, 1971, with the structure about 90 percent complete, a blaze broke out that caused damage estimated at$600,000.
Repairs were undertaken and the building opened on schedule July 1, 1971, drawing more than 300,000 patrons by the time the initial season ended.
"Damn it," said Wanserski, "if we could rebuild it then, we'll do it again."
Also at the scene last night was Catherine Filene Shouse, the woman who donated the 117 acres of land for the park, and also gave the money for construction of the towering 119-foot-high Filene Center.
Mrs. Shouse, a Washington arts patron and widow of an assistant secretary of the Treasury under President Wilson, was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln Filene of Boston, for whom the center is named.
Mrs. Shouse sat watching from a station wagon last night as the building she made possible was consumed and collapsed in flames. Reporters who approached the vehicle were waved away.
Although police blocked traffic on access roads to the center, some neighbors, including one or two in bathrobes, also came to the park to watch the blaze . Some of them had tears in their eyes.
"This is a shame," said one man who has lived in the neighborhood since the theater was built. "It's sad, tragic."
"My family and I had planned to come out here again in the summer," he added. But staring at the ruins of the building, which continued to blaze into the early hours of this morning, he said, "There's nothing left to save here."
One firefighter called the fire the biggest he had seen and a spokeswoman for the county fire department said that she thought it might burn all night.