By CELESTINE BOHLEN
PRINCETON — Distraught businessmen huddled in the icy cold of Witherspoon Street yesterday, eyeing the remnants of their livelihood.
A wrecking crew cleared out the charred remains of a three-story building on the corner of Witherspoon and Spring Streets. A general alarm fire had destroyed 15 small businesses. It was the worst fire in the borough’s business district since World War 11. when a Nassau Street building burned down, said borough administrator Robert Mooney Unofficial estimates of the damage from the predawn blaze put the loss at more than SI million. Complete destruction of the Ben-son Building and severe damage to the Alderman and Click Insurance and Urken Supply Store buildings next door were reported.
BY MID-AFTERNOON, the wall of the Benson building facing Spring Street had been reduced to rubble. The wrecker’s claws, dangling from a 60-foot crane, ate their way through the building, flinging window-frames, air conditioners and lee’covered bricks to the street below. The building’s facade on Witherspoon Street was left standing, but Lawrence Benson. son of the owner, said the remains probably will by the end of the weekend. Firemen yesterday were not able to pinpoint the cause of the blue. It is theorized based on the reports of witnesses who phoned in the alarm, that the fire started In the kitchen of the Colonial Restaurant, on the ground-floor of the Benson building. The younger Benson, said approximately 13 businesses — some of them less than a year old — were housed in his father’s building.
HIS FATHER who has owned the building for 30 years, was In Sarasota, Fla. yesterday. His son said be told him not to bother to return.
“It’s a total loss,” said Benson, a 28 year-old tree surgeon from Ringoes. “He had it all those years and did a lot of the work on it himself. It is not a happy affair.”
One of the victim’s of the fire was Hill’s market, a grocery store which has, since its start In 1909, earned a large and loyal clientele in Princeton.
Paul Hill, the fourth generation of his family to run the store,
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Owners weigh fire losses
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stood in a doorway across the street, stunned by his loss and received condolences from passing customers. “We’re out of business, that’s all,” he said laconically.
“I don’t know what I am going to do at this point.” he said. “I’m still in shock. It’s the third fire we’ve had in that building and none have been our fault.”
“It’ll be a shame not to have our business’ after all these years but it will be hard to get back into business quickly. which is a necessity for us.” he added, explaining that his was mostly a “charge and delivery” business.
HE NOTED with some small comfort, the phones at his home on Morgan Place in Princeton Township has been flooded with calls from friends offering to help.
For Phillips and Debra Blakeman, the fire spelled the demise of their small second-hand goods store. On Consignment, winch they opened 10 months ago in the basement of the Benson Building.
Blakeman, 33, is a former computer program analyst who quit his job because be was tired of “bosses” and “corporate politics.”
Anyway, I always wanted to get into this kind of business.” he said. The Blakemans accepted used goods — from furniture to Jewelry — and resold them on consignment for the owners.
They hope to repay their customers for destroyed goods but, as it happened, Thursday night was the one time they did not bring their records home with them and, while their office escaped the flames, it is under three feet of water.
Diane Jones sat in Harry’s luncheonette. nursing her loss with a cup of coffee and comforting words from friends.
She and Van Ottinger are co-owners of Just Hair, a brightly-decorated one-room haircutting salon which would have celebrated its first anniversary next month
“WE WERE JUST beginning to make it,” she said wanly. Now she and Winger are worried insurance will not cover their losses. ”I just don’t know what we are going to do.”
Bernard Polansky, 46, lives In Kendall Park where he is a member of the local volunteer fire company. At 6:50 am. yesterday, he was awakened by a friend who heard a report of the Princeton fire over the radio.
“All I was hoping as I drove down here was that it wasn’t the whole building,” said Polansky. It turned out the fire did spare his year old Clear and Crisp Printing shop. but the water did not ”And business was gust picking up nicely,” the former merchandise monitor said glumly.
Fred Johnston has had his motion picture and TV advertisement Production business — Allscope — on the second floor of the Benson Building for the last 30 years. Now the second floor is in the basement. “I’m wiped out,” he said simply.
In the Urken Supply Store next door, flames shot through one wall and caused “considerable” damage, said Irv Urken. Urken had nothing but praise for the firemen who laid tarpaulins user merchandise to minimize water damage. “They were fantastic,” said Urken.
ICICLES DRAPED the gaping windows of Alderman and Click at 15 Spring Street after fireman doused the structure. It was gutted by flames that leapt from the Benson building. Business yesterday was handled from employes’ homes.
The Welcome Aboard Travel agency, in the Benson Building, yesterday moved to the basement of a nearby liquor store. “It’s business as usual,” said a harried employe.
Two art galleries, the insurance offices of Robert M. Dilatush 3d and other businesses were destroyed in the fire yesterday. A complete list of companies was not available.
Built in 1909 to replace another building destroyed in a fire, the Benson Building still is remembered by some longtime Princeton residents as the Branch Building where gala balls once were held on one of the upper stories.
Assessed last year at $225,200, the 100-by-200 foot structure probably is worth more than twice the amount, according to a spokesman in the borough tax office.
A FIRE BROKE out In the Colonial Restaurant in 1970, prompting $3,000 worth of repairs to the diner, according to building reports in borough hall.
Some tenants of the Benson Building yesterday maintained that fire violations have since been reported at restaurants, causing an increase in their own fire insurance rates. But Princeton Fire Chief Anthony Krystaponis said yesterday that “no fire violators are recorded on my book. You always get all kinds of stories floating like that.”
One fire truck remained on the scene through the evening yesterday as Princeton volunteer firemen — on duty since 4:30 am. — continued to hose down the smoldering ruins.