Springfield fire has potential to transform downtown

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(Host) A landmark building in downtown Springfield sits empty today, partially gutted by a stubborn fire that burned for hours. It has been ruled an act of arson, and an 18-year old man is in custody.

No one was injured, but the center of town is badly scarred and several businesses are closed.

As VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports, fire has transformed many other Vermont communities over the years.

(Sneyd) Once the fire got started in the Ellis Block late on Tuesday night, it was tough to put out.

Firefighter John Claflin described it 12 hours later.

(Claflin) "We received a call at approximately 10:30 reporting a possible fire on Main Street. It escalated to a fifth alarm. All units were working. Fire was declared under control around 4 this morning.”

(Sneyd) By that time, downtown was a mess. The town’s movie theater – which just a year ago is where “The Simpsons” movie premiered nationally – is closed.

Just across an alley, firefighters were able to prevent flames from spreading to the Lincoln Block. But water and smoke poured into that building, so Penelope’s and McKinley’s restaurants are closed for now.

Town Manager Bob Forguites says the fire was the worst to hit Springfield in years.

(Forguites) "It’s a sad thing for Springfield because it’s right in the middle of downtown Springfield. We don’t quite know at this point what the future for it is. It’s a valuable building because of its location and the only theater in town.”

(Sneyd) Fires can be devastating to a town, so historic preservationists try to quickly shore up a building if they think it can be saved.

Paul Bruhn of the Preservation Trust of Vermont headed to Springfield when he learned of the fire.

(Bruhn) "I’m looking at the building right now. It’s raining, you can probably hear the rain in the background. It does look structurally stable at this point. But the roof is pretty much gone. There’s water pouring in, so water will start to have an effect.”

(Sneyd) The Preservation Trust has stepped in many times to help a town recover after a downtown fire – in Randolph, St. Johnsbury, Hardwick, Enosburg, Brattleboro.

University of Vermont historic preservation professor Tom Visser says losing a landmark can force a community to take stock of what it’s got.

(Visser) "They do provide a glue that helps to hold the fabric of a community together. When these cornerstone buildings are lost in our downtowns, often it can have an effect. On one hand it’s saddening. On the other hand it’s a wakeup call to the vulnerabilities of the buildings that comprise our communities.”

(Sneyd) Sometimes, what replaces a destroyed building fails to match the architectural glory of what once stood there.

The Adna Brown Hotel stood very near today’s Ellis Block. The three story brick building had a soaring corner tower and big front porches. It burned to the ground decades ago. Today, a single-story building occupies the site.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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