Severe Early Morning Fire Guts Two Buildings on Nassau Street

28 February, 1990

Severe Early Morning Fire Guts Two Buildings on Nassau Street

A day after an early Monday morning fire severely damaged two Princeton University-owned buildings on Nassau Street which housed four businesses and five apartments, investigators were still in the process of trying to determine the cause and a University spokesman said that the struc-tures would probably have to be torn down.

Princeton Fire Chief Eric Karch replied not at this time,” when asked Tuesday morning if the cause of the 81,5 million blaze had been determined. “It’s still under investigation.

Tenants in all the second-floor apartments were evacuated safety. Five firemen were treated for minor injuries at Princeton Medical Center: two for smoke inhalation, two for hypothermia and one, Princeton fireman David Bogle, for a broken thumb.

Businesses closed by the fire are the American Diner and Wadsworth’s Gourmet Bakery at 179 Nassau and Thomas Sweet Ice Cream and Chocolate and the recently-opened Zorba’s Grill located at 183 Nassau.

The University’s Director of Communications, Justin Harmon, said Tuesday that he expects that the two buildings, which the University has owned since 1968 and renovated in the 1970s, will have to be razed. The 179 Nassau build-ing, he said, which houses the diner and Wadsworth’s, is “clearly a loss. The 183 is less severely damaged but it looks as if it might have to be razed, too.”

Mr. Harmon emphasized that no decision has been made. Any decision, he added, would be based on whether, in fact, the second building is a loss, what the replacement costs would be and what the community feels is best for the site. The University, he said, wants public input. The site is zoned residential-commercial.

Tax assessor Carol Caskey reports the lots are assessed at $691,400, which represents a market value of at least $1.5 million. Taxes are $23,300. Ms. Caskey commented that if the costly fire had occurred before January 10, the buildings could have been taken off the tax rolls. Since the fire came after that date, the University will have to pay a full year’s tax on the property. The 1990 budget, she said, would not be affected.

The call from Thomas Sweet manager Ellen Abernathy reporting a smoke condition in the building came to police headquarters at 12:46 a.m. Patrolmen Ronald Wohlschlegel, Gary Mitchell and Keven Bender responded. They found smoke in all the adjoining buildings, Capt. Thomas Michaud reported. All doors were locked. The smoke concentration became heavier, Capt. Michaud said, toward the area of the bakery and the diner. Open flames were first noticed in the rear of the diner and the bakery.

Firemen — police and fire-firemen were both sent to the scene by the police dispatcher —broke in the side door of the dinner to gain entrance. All residents on the second floor were evacuated. By this time, heavy smoke was pouring frdm the whole building.

A call for a general alarm and for mutual aid from sur-rounding fire companies was sounded.

In addition to the three Princeton volunteer companies, firemen from Princeton Junction, Lawrence, South Brunswick, Kingston and Montgomery helped fight the fire. It was fought in a bitter, nine-degree temperature, but Chief Karch said that the cold did not hamper the firemen in fighting the fire. It was brought under control at 5:20 in the morning. Busy Nassau Street was blocked off, however, until 5:20 Monday afternoon. In the middle of the night, a Princeton Fuel Oil truck arrived to refill the diesel-powered fire trucks so they could remain at the scene.

On Monday and Tuesday, cranes removed structural damage and an air conditioning unit from the roof so the struc-tures would not be a hazard to investigators. Public Service trucks were at the scene as workmen disconnected gas and electric lines. A U.S. Department of the Treasury Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms lab truck has been parked in front of the site to help analyse material at the scene. Federal investigators were brought in at the invitation of Mercer County Prosecutor Paul T. Koenig Jr. Four Mercer County detectives are investigating the fire.

Chief Karch commented that a fire such as this is routinely investigated by the federal government whenever there is a large loss to a commercial property.

Also involved in the investigation is a detective from the Borough police department, Borough Fire Inspector Bill Majewski and Chief Karch. It was expected that a few more days will elapse before the cause of the fire is finally determined.

Staff photo • Tom Lederer

Firefighters enter a doorway at the rear of the American Cafe as the fire rages early Monday morning

BEYOND SAVING? Three exhausted firemen contemplate charred and gutted buildings at 179 and 183 Nassau Street — mere shells remaining after a fire early Monday morning. Princeton University must now decide whether to raze the buildings or try to salvage them.


AMERICAN DINER GUTTED: A sign reading ‘Early Bird Special’ was just about all that was left of the American Diner, at 179 Nassau Street, after Monday morning’s fire destroyed the interior.

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