Fire has remodeled downtown before

2 March , 1990 (~estimated)

Fire has remodeled downtown before

By John P. McAlpin
Staff Writer

In much the same way it has built island chains, and mountain ranges, fire has shaped the landscape of downtown Princeton.

Molten lava pumped from beneath the surface destroys everything in its path and becomes another layer on the planet.

Damaged in days, it can take millenia for the other natural forces to slowly restore the new surface.

In hours Monday, the character of Nassau Street changed. Four popular businesses were ruined and a historic building was reduced to charred rubble.

Now owners and shop keepers face the arduous process of rebuilding businesses turned to ash.

It’s a scene Princetonians have seen before.

Fire destroyed a number of popular stores and familiar buildings in the past. Some have risen like phoenixes to new levels of success while others have been replaced by shops now serving as downtown landmarks.

The fire itself, say those who have suffered through such tragedy, is the first road back.

In the mid-1940s the building on the corner of Nassau and Tulane streets burned, according to Princeton Borough Police Chief Michael Carnevale.

It was only a few years later that a developer built a new building, making room for the F.W. Woolworth’s store, the chief noted.

Hulit’s Shoes burned in 1974, the same year that a fire hit Harry’s Luncheonette. Owners of both shops returned to business as usual.

A day shy of 66 years after it was burned to the ground the first time, firefighters were called to the Benson Building at the corner of Spring and Witherspoon streets on Jan. 21, 1977.

What stands there now is the building’s third incarnation.

The dawn of the 1980s was the doom of the Value Fair drug store. A fire there destroyed that store as well as Allen’s Children Center and Marita’s Cantina.

Gone not only was the drug store but the look as well. With the reconstruction came a new facade for the building, Chief Carnevale said.

February 1985 is a month Kevin Kruse remembers well. As director of operations for Landis Food Services, it was the month thier Nassau Street Marita’s Cantina was gutted by fire.

It took workers a year and a half before opening the restaurant’s door again, he said.

“It was hell, absolute hell,” Mr. Kruse said.

Fred Ableson said he does not even want to remember what it was like when his store was damaged again by the 1985 fire.

“It’s very difficult when your entire stock is damaged,” he said.

Smoke is the biggest vandal, Mr. Ableson explained. Soot dirties clothing and in most cases it cannot be washed off.

The smell is often most pervasive, he added.

“I feel sorry for those people at Thomas Sweets, the bakery and the diner. I really do,” said Mr. Kruse.

“You look at it like it’s money, lots of money, and it’s time, an awful lot of time, but you have to take an optimistic view of things,” he said.

Leave a Reply