GARDINER — Plywood covered the ground floor windows at 192 Water St. for nearly a year after fire nearly destroyed one of the city’s most historic buildings.

But earlier this month, the wood panels were replaced with glass, a signal life is coming back to the prominent downtown building built nearly 200 years ago.

“When will it be open? That’s the million dollar question,” building owner Fernando Jantorno Stelser said.

On Dec. 28, 2018, firefighters from Gardiner and surrounding communities as far away as Topsham battled a fire that broke out at about 3 a.m., apparently between the ceiling of the second floor and the roof — the result of an electrical malfunction.

No space in the two-story building and its annex on Church Street went untouched. The second floor, which housed several offices, was described as a total loss. The first floor, where a Domino’s Pizza had operated since June 2017, sustained extensive water and smoke damage.

Stelser bought the building with his wife, Hadria Vale Jantorno, for their Gardiner Domino’s franchise. Less than two weeks after the fire, Stelser committed to rebuilding both his restaurant and the historic building that housed it.

A structural engineer determined the building, built as a two-story structure in the 1830s, would not need to be demolished. By March, interior demolition had begun, and work has continued throughout the year.

Stelser said delays from a variety of sources, including his contractor and Central Maine Power Co., have slowed his progress. But he anticipates reopening the restaurant in the first three months of 2020.

“By the end of January, we’ll have a date,” Stelser said.

And after the restaurant is open, his attention will turn to the office spaces.

That is welcome news to the people who are planning to move in.

Gardiner Mayor Patricia Hart, whose office for her consulting business was in that building, has committed to returning.

And Gardiner Main Street, the nonprofit organization dedicated to building a vibrant and sustainable downtown, has plans to occupy one of the offices.

“This is one of Gardiner’s most historic buildings,” said Robert Abbey, vice president of Gardiner Main Street. “When he realized the extent of the damage, he could have walked away from it.”

Instead, Abbey said, Stelser moved his Gardiner employees to his other restaurants and committed to bringing the building back.

“In my opinion,” Abbey said, “he’s a remarkable man and an amazing businessman because he made a commitment to our downtown and he kept it.”

Even though his business in Gardiner has been closed, Stelser has sponsored events such as the Greater Gardiner Riverfest.

Gardiner Main Street is looking forward to the completion of the upper floor because it will be leasing one of the spaces from Stelser for its office.

The organization has been operating out of the Archives Room at the Gardiner Public Library since last summer, when it gave up its office space in the Dingley Block, which the organization sold so it could be redeveloped.

The Domino’s Pizza building, with plywood covering the front door, is seen Dec. 24 in downtown Gardiner. A year after a fire gutted the structure, the owner is rebuilding with plans to reopen within a few months. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Throughout its life, the building at the corner of Water and Church streets has housed a number of businesses, offices and shops, including Maine Trust & Banking, Fleet Bank of Maine, Camden National Bank and the Gardiner Hotel.

It started as a two-story building. Later, a third floor and mansard roof were added. More than a century ago, the building burned, causing it to be torn down to the foundation and rebuilt in 1903.

When Stelser and Jantorno opened the Domino’s initially, they were bound by the requirements of the historic district in which the building sits. But they also voluntarily preserved many of the space’s historic details, including the bank vault, where restaurant seating was added.

Once that was gone after the fire, Abbey said, Jantorno was sad. But Stelser never waivered.

Abbey said he sent a letter to the Domino’s corporate office, describing what Stelser had done to keep the 192 Water St. a productive building in Gardiner’s downtown economy.

“I said whether you have a categories for this in your corporate recognition of people, I think he’s totally deserving of that recognition,” Abbey said, noting he has received no response from Domino’s.

“He just went way above and beyond what anybody expected of him. He typifies the attitude of downtown Gardiner, which is: you can knock us down, but we will get back up.”

When Gardiner firefighters responded to the fire, they did not have far to go. The Water Street building is located just across the parking lot for the Gardiner City Hall, where the Fire Department is located.

“It’s been kind of neat to sit here and watch the rebuilding,” Fire Chief Al Nelson said. “A lot of the work has been happening on the back side of the building, and that’s where the contractors have had access and where you can see the progress.”

 

 

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