Jacob Martin spent five years painstakingly renovating the building at 934 Montegut St. in the Bywater, turning it into a combined art gallery, studio space and home that he dubbed the Aquarium Gallery and Studios.
Early Wednesday, a fire so hot that it warped the plastic on a truck across the street ripped through the building, displacing him and several others who live there.
Martin said that earlier in the night he had turned on a number of clamp lights in a shed as he moved some of his boyfriend’s belongings into the house. He said he turned the lights off about 1 a.m. and went to his room on the second floor of the two-story, wood-framed house. The gallery is at the front of the first floor.
“I went upstairs to sleep and woke up an hour later to flames,” Martin said. “I just heard the crackling. ... I looked out the balcony door and I just saw flames.”
The New Orleans Fire Department said the first 911 call about the fire came about 2:20 a.m. Four minutes later, the first firefighters arrived on the scene — 75 would eventually respond — to find the shed attached to the house engulfed in flames, according to spokesman Capt. Edwin Holmes.
Flames already were licking up the left side of the building all the way to its roof, according to the Fire Department. Firefighters labored to keep the fire from spreading through the block of tightly packed houses, finally declaring it under control just before 4 a.m.
No one was injured, although one firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion. The Fire Department said the cause of the blaze is still under investigation.
By 10 a.m., Martin and friends were evaluating the extensive damage and carrying what clothes and other items they could salvage outside. Neighbors stopped by to get a look at the house and offer their condolences.
Wendi Maloy, who lives nearby on Clouet Street, dropped by to tell Martin that she and other neighbors would bring clothes.
She said the artists who lived and worked there are well-liked in the neighborhood.
Martin described his gallery as a “low-key” affair that he advertised on social media and used to feature the work of friends in the city’s arts community.
“That’s what I was doing with this space — creating a community,” Martin said.
The most recent exhibition at the house featured photos from artist Delaina LeBlanc documenting the biology of Louisiana’s coast.
As Martin’s friends combed through the house Wednesday morning, one of them entered the gallery room and made a happy discovery.
“All the pictures are good!” she shouted.