15 December, 1987
Fire officials investigate cause of Terrace Club fire
By Wendy Plump
Five area fire companies battled a two-hour structural balaze at Princeton University’s Terrace Club Friday night, the cause of which remains undetermined as officials continue to gather statements from firefighters, witnesses and club members.
The fire wreaked an estimated $100,000 to $500,000 in damage on the co-educational eating club, one of 14 such socials clubs on campus, according to Princeton Fire Department Chief Kenneth Rendall.
There were no injuries in the fire, which initially started at 5:50 p.m. and erupted again on a third floor of the club at about 8 p.m., Chief Rendall. The Terrace Club has been declared uninhabitable. Plans are currently underway to determine how the building will be renovated one official said.
Fire officials have traced the fire’s origin to a room in the basement. From that point, the fire spread quickly along a sealed-off crawlspace and up through the club’s hollow walls into the upper region of the Tudor-style building, Chief Rendall said.
A second blaze — fed by hot gases — erupted on the third floor nearly two hours after the main fire started he added.
As a result of the second blaze, fire officials did not pronounce the fire under control until about 8:15 p.m., and did not depart from the club on the corner of Prospect Avenue and Washington Road until after 10 p.m.
Officials have ruled out electric wiring or the basement furnace as causes for the blaze, Chief Rendall said. “We checked all the wires in the point origin and they were fine. That’s why, right now, it’s being listed as an undetermined fire. The county fire marshal (George Lenhardt) has to get more statements from the people involved.
“We’re not leaning towards an arson,” Chief Rendall continued.
“We think if anything, this fire is accidental.”
Officials are also investigating the club’s “extensive” fire alarm system, which was inoperative at the time of the fire. “Given that the alarm wasn’t working, we were extremely lucky. If the fire had started later in the night, it would have made more headway,” Chief Rendall said.
The fire was actually called in by a Terrace Club member, junior David Thickens, who is also a member of the Princeton Fire Department and First Aid Squad, Chief Rendall explained,. Mr. Thickens was carrying a walkie-talkie at the time of fire. Approximately 10 students and members of the kitchen staff were in the building when smoke began filtering up from the basement. The majority of the club’s 150 members had not yet arrived at the building for the Friday dinner, one student said.
“It was right before dinner, so not many people were around. All things considered, it was probably the best time for it. People don’t start coming in until about 6 p.m.,” said senior Steve Hilles, a club member who was in the building when the fire started.
“Someone started yelling that there was smoke coming up from the basement and the dining room floor. A bunch of us ran down to the basement and saw a fire in the blue room, a storage area. Mostly, it was in the ceiling,” Mr. Hilles recalled.”I tried to put it out with a fire extinguisher, but it was too far out of control by then.”
Chief Rendall emphasized the building was not gutted by the fire. Instead, he said, there was structural damage to many floors and walls, and a dining room floor collapsed as a result of the fire. One of two student rooms in the building also suffered extensive smoke and water damage, he said.
Groups of students milled around on the blocked-off street outside the club Friday, watching as plumes of smoke rose from the back of the building. Senior Peter Fiske sat with his arm around Terrace Club President Molly Bleiden, one of the only two students living in the club at the time of the blaze.
Minutes later, Ms. Bleiden was standing alone in the parking lot behind the club, crying. “That was everything I had. Everything I owned was in my room,” she said, staring at the smoke.
Gordon Harrison, Terrace Club business manager, also lamented teh fire, saying a considerable amount of renovation work has been completed in the house in recent years. A $30,000 rewiring job was wrapped-up this summer and the final inspection of the work held just a few weeks ago, Mr. Harrison said.
In addition, new windows, new steel beams and a refurbished living room floor had all been recently added to the club.
“It’s like two steps forward, one step back,” Mr. Harrison said. “This club was doing so well — it had the reputation for the best food on the street, the membership was at an all-time high. But I do think we’ve got the type of group that will be motivated to hold together.”
Mr. Harrison added club members and officials are talking with the university about a possible site in which the entire membership can meet until its building is again functional. In the meantime, he added, members have been invited to eat at several of the other 13 social/dining clubs on campus.
This was not the first fire suffered by the Terrace Club. A small fue in the kitchen four years ago caused a minimal amount of damage.
Responding to Friday’s fire were the’ Princeton Fire Department, and the Kingston, Princeton Junction, Lawrenceville and Lawrence Ron fire companies.