WATERVILLE — The owner of a downtown building that burned on May 3 said he plans to raze the structure and possibly build another one at the site.
John Weeks is in the process, he said, of getting money from his insurance company to tear down the four-story building at 16–18 Main St., just south of Silver Street Tavern.
“In their opinion it was a total loss,” Weeks said of insurance officials. “My hope is to get it down before winter.”
Weeks said he wants to do business downtown, but what he builds on the fire site will be driven by finances. If he does build, it may not be right on Main Street, but behind it, where he owns a parking area.
“My intention is to put something back there, but economics will play a big role in my decision,” he said.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office concluded that the blaze started on a third-floor deck and the cause of the fire is undetermined.
“There was serious, serious water damage, and it’s a wooden structure inside,” Weeks said. He estimated the cost to demolish the 10,000-square-foot building at $150,000.
Removal of the building will leave a large gap, but it is not the first time fire has ravaged downtown, leaving gaps where buildings once were.
In February 1967, the Haines Theatre at 175 Main St. was destroyed by fire. The theater, which opened in 1918, was between what is now DK Nails and an office building.
A landscaped area with benches and a bike rack and a drive-thru for TD Bank, which has an office is across Main Street, also occupy the space.
In May 1973, fire destroyed Gerard’s Restaurant, the former Gallert Shoe Store and two other buildings on lower Main Street.
The structures that burned were between what is now Larsen’s Jewelry and Camden National Bank.
The gap is now filled with two buildings that house GHM Insurance and A&L Barber Shop as well as a small landscaped park. The park includes pine trees, benches, a walkway to Front Street and a mural painted painted on the side of building constructed after the fire.
Time to be smart
Losing old buildings such as Week’s red-brick one is difficult and the ones downtown are intricately tied to adjacent properties, according to Jennifer Olsen, executive director of Waterville Main Street.
“I’m sad about it,” she said. “What is most important to me is that whatever happens on that property is going to affect the neighbors. We have a lot of beautiful old building stock, so what we do matters. This is a great big example of why we have to be sure that in our commercial core we really be smart about preserving as many buildings as we can.”
Olsen said she looks forward to seeing Weeks’ plans and talking with him about it if he decides to build again.
Like Olsen, City Manager Michael Roy said losing buildings is tough.
“We’re sad about losing a building of that size on our main street, but if it’s a total loss, the sooner it comes down, the better,” he said.
Mayor Karen Heck said it is a shame the building has to be razed, but she understands why it must happen.
“I’m sorry that the sprinklers weren’t functioning so we might have saved another historic building in Waterville,” she said.
Charlie Giguere owns a building next to the fire site that houses his business, Silver Street Tavern, as well apartments.
The apartments were damaged by smoke from the fire and firefighters broke down apartment doors and pushed out windows in the building to fight the flames across the alley.
He said Weeks has been cooperative with him and the only issue with the burned building is aesthetic.
“Obviously, we’d like our neighborhood to be as good-looking as it possibly can be,” Giguere said. “It’s going to be nice when the building gets taken out — for all of Main Street.”
Eyesore and danger
Buildings damaged to this degree ought to be removed, according to fire Chief David LaFountain.
“Besides being an eyesore, there’s a level of danger there,” he said. “The sooner it comes down, the better.”
After the fire, the City Council launched a committee to look at sprinkler systems downtown, inspection records and other safety-related issues.
The council on Sept. 3 voted to authorize LaFountain to enforce national fire safety codes downtown. Council Chairman Erik Thomas, D-Ward 4, said at the time that when the fire occurred, nobody was designated as a person who had the authority to enforce codes already in place.
Downtown business owners who attended the Sept. 3 meeting asked whether buildings that have never had sprinkler systems would now be required to have them. The cost to do so would be prohibitive, they said.
LaFountain said his department does regular fire safety inspections downtown and works with building owners to help them comply with codes. He sought to assure building owners that if they have had inspections from the Fire Department and were found to be in compliance, they should not worry.
The discussion was the result of concerns about the fire at Weeks’ building. LaFountain said Weeks turned off the sprinkler system in 2005 and it was understood he would turn it back on if he had people living in the building, but that did not occur.
A matter of survival
Weeks said that several years ago he renovated the second floor of the building and had to remove about a third of the sprinkler system in order to do the work. At the time, he didn’t plan to have people living in the building, he said.
He said he hired a person who needed a place to live and he offered him one of the apartments, not knowing he was violating code. He was then told he had to have a sprinkler system, which would have cost about $30,000, he said.
At his request, Weeks said, the State Fire Marshal’s Office walked through the building with him to determine how he could bring it up to code without having to spend that much money. Weeks installed a fire wall and added fire doors.
“I was trying to do the right thing and still economically survive,” he said.
Weeks’ business, JR’s Trading & Pawn, previously occupied the first floor of the building. He ultimately moved the shop to 100 Elm St. and INK-4-LIFE moved into the space he vacated. After the fire, the tattoo shop moved across the street to the former Levine’s clothing store and now has an entrance on Front Street.
Amy Calder — 861-9247