'We'll get it back,' Lighthouse Inn owner vows after fire
New London — Lighthouse Inn, a beloved landmark that just reopened last week after a five-year renovation, was damaged by fire Thursday for the third time in a centurylong history that has been filled with setbacks.
"It seems like a majority of the damage is held to the back of the building, throughout the floor and on the roof," fire Chief Tom Curcio said. He said there was water damage to the rear and basement, and damage to the walls and floor on the first two floors.
At the rear of Lighthouse Inn on Guthrie Place, dozens of onlookers observed in shock. Smoke billowed out of the broken-out second-floor windows, the balcony and a section of the roof into which firefighters drilled to release the smoke.
More than 40 minutes after the 2:36 p.m. call came in, firefighters stood on the small top-floor balcony and started prying off part of the roof overhead, and flames poked out. Curcio said the floors were still stable enough for firefighters to walk on, and that the exterior of the building should be fine.
"We'll get it back," owner Alwyn Christy said just after exiting the front of the building and surveying the damage. He said the tavern, kitchen, Johnson Room and Blue Room are all fine.
The inn's 1902 Tavern opened last Thursday, the first time any part of the building had been open to the public since 2008.
As she watched firefighters working, Sue Devlin said she originally had plans to come to the inn on Thursday night with Jill Johnson, the namesake of the Johnson Room. She hadn't been there since the inn reopened and was looking forward to it. Devlin stopped by with her husband, Barry Neistat; the two formerly owned Muddy Waters Café in downtown New London.
Christy said from Thursday to Sunday, more than 400 people had gone through the place and had a meal, and "we heard all their stories."
He also said there were 225 people signed up to have brunch there on Mother's Day. He didn't know yet when the inn might be able to reopen, saying he needs to work with the fire marshal to make sure everything is safe.
Felix Reyes, director of economic development and planning for the city, said, "we're going to call it a minor setback, and I think as a community and as a city, we're going to do everything we can to help him get back to where he was earlier today."
Reyes went into the building after the fire and said, "it's not all lost, that's what I saw. I saw hope, that we'll be fine, that we'll get through." He had earlier stood with Christy, Mayor Michael Passero and state Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, as firefighters worked.
An aggressive response from firefighters
Curcio said all 16 city firefighters on duty were dispatched immediately. First responders saw that all the workers were out of the building, and they knew there was fire in the roof.
It took more than an hour to knock down the blaze.
"We needed a lot of manpower here quickly," Curcio said, "because our first-in crew did a phenomenal job, and they were pretty tired so they needed to get relief companies in here. So, that's why we called the second alarm right away, and brought in more companies."
He later added, "You gotta have staffing. To save a building like this, if you don't have staffing, it's going to be a loss."
Also responding were the Waterford, Electric Boat, Cohanzie, Poquonnock Bridge, Naval Submarine Base, Mohegan and Norwich fire departments. Also on scene were Groton Ambulance, Mystic River Ambulance, Lawrence + Memorial medics, and the Salvation Army Canteen. Eversource came to secure gas and electric utilities.
Curcio said one firefighter was taken to the hospital for possible heat exhaustion, and another who wasn't feeling well was transported later to be checked out.
Blue awnings were propped up against the stone wall at the rear of the building, in front of the mostly intact first-floor windows with holes drilled overhead. People were drilling to put up a sign, Christy said.
Fire Marshal Vern Skau is investigating the cause of the fire.
He and Curcio talked about some of the structural difficulties in fighting the fire. Skau said the structure is a balloon-frame construction, meaning it has open voids inside the walls. Curcio said the walls are made of wood lath with chicken wire, "so it's very labor-intensive to open that up."
A history of fires
Built in 1902 as the home of Charles S. Guthrie, a Pittsbugh steel magnate, the building became Lighthouse Inn in 1926. For decades it was the go-to place for dinners, parties and special events until it closed in 2008. It reopened for an invite-only event last month, and then the tavern opened to the public.
All four firefighting shifts had gone to look at the building, some as recently as last week, and didn't see any code violations, Curcio said.
Curcio said whenever there's any construction or updating of a building, especially around the Bank Street area, fire crews go in to see what type of work is being done and whether or not it's safe to enter, in situations where some of the flooring has been removed. And he said Lighthouse Inn was no different.
Thursday's fire is the third major blaze to strike the building, and all have victimized relatively new owners.
On June 4, 1944, flames broke through the roof on a Sunday morning as 33 people fled the building, which had just been redecorated. Andrew Secchiaroli had bought the inn just three months earlier, but faced with at least $15,000 in damages, he soon sold the place.
Thirty-five years later, on July 5, 1979, a three-alarm fire destroyed the upper floors, just two months after Arthur and Jean Valis had bought the building. Damage from that fire was estimated at $600,000. With help from a community effort, the Valises were able to reopen within six months. But they never recovered financially, and two years later the inn was shuttered by the Internal Revenue Service.
Dr. Richard Fraser, who lives on Ocean Avenue, recalled that he was at his office by L+M when he got word of that fire. The one in the 1970s was a bigger fire, he said, "but gee-whiz, it's been vacant for so long, and then everything opens up ... crazy."
The decades between the two fires were the inn's golden age under the ownership of brothers William and Albert Ronnick.
There were also minor fires in 1961 and 2000.
Neighbors and other onlookers Thursday reminisced over their Lighthouse Inn memories and expressed their sadness about this fire happening so soon after the long-vacant landmark was brought back to life. Tim Zeppieri commented that he used to be in a band that played once or twice a month at Lighthouse Inn.
Just Thursday morning, he had been walking by with his girlfriend, who lives nearby on Mallove Drive, and admiring the work. They hadn't been inside since it reopened.
But now, "I'm not going to wait," he said. "When he gets up on his feet, after this, I'm definitely going to go."
Day Staff Writer John Ruddy contributed to this report.