By Michael Regan
The Tonawanda News
A raging fire that began in the early morning hours Saturday destroyed the Elk’s Lodge 860, a hulking landmark brick structure in downtown North Tonawanda.
A 911 call received at 5:45 a.m. reported the smell of smoke, sending three companies from the Twin Cities to the site, where firefighters entered the building and quickly determined the blaze would have to be battled from the exterior after flames had crept into the roof and infrastructure.
About 30 minutes after 50 firefighters were called to the scene the intense flames caused the building’s roof to collapse.
By noon Saturday, one ladder truck was dousing the still-smoldering structure, as icicles clung to the building’s iconic sign and shards of blackened wood and metal steamed on the ground.
Dozens of onlookers came to the scene of the fire, taking pictures and videos and reflecting on various memories forged of the thousands of events hosted at the lodge over the century it stood on the Erie Canal’s north bank.
North Tonawanda Fire Chief John Lapham said the building was gutted and would have to be razed due to asbestos exposure and a compromise to its structural integrity. Sweeney Street will be closed to North Marion Street for an indeterminate amount of time. Emergency demolition was scheduled to begin this morning.
Lapham said the amount of lath wood and gilded detail throughout the Elks’ 14,000-square-foot structure caused the fire to spread quickly, after the blaze broke out on the third floor near a boiler room.
Damage is estimated at more than $1.1 million and investigators are still trying to determine the precise cause of the fire. The building was uninhabited and no injuries were reported to firefighters at the scene.
The chairperson of the lodge will also work with fire officials to save some of the many historic relics inside, including removing clocks perched near the top of the building and a time capsule buried somewhere within it. Investigators will also try to extract its blueprints from a safe in the basement, Lapham said.
“As the building is demolished we’ll try to get bits and pieces of information,” he said. “It’s going to be a long, drawn-out process.”
One member of the Elks Lodge said he was catering an event Friday evening and had recently stored his equipment in the basement of the building. That man, who would only give his first name, Domenico, said his cell phone was flooded with calls and text messages from fellow members, which woke him up at 8:30 a.m. Saturday.
Domenico described a building suffused with history, including photos of past leaders of the lodge — one dating back to the Civil War — hanging in a grand Lodge Room.
“I’m just dumbfounded about this,” he said, while standing at the edge of yellow police tape cordoning off the area on a brisk morning. “This is a big thing in NT. Everybody knows this place. Some people have been coming here since their grandparents were members.”
A wedding reception and Christmas gift fundraiser called “Rockin’ With Santa” — both of which were to be held at the lodge Saturday — had to be moved to alternate locations.
Laura Dolpp, the mother of the groom who is also a fireman with Sweeney Hose Company, said the family was at the lodge late Friday night arranging decorations in the building’s ballroom for an expected 90 guests.
“He was not on call for it,” she said of her son, who was to be married at St. Martin Lutheran Church on Saturday afternoon. “He did have the scanner on in his room and right away he came and woke us up.”
Dolpp’s husband, a trustee at the lodge, headed over to the fire and discovered the building was in ruins. She said the reception instead would be held at the Rescue Fire Hall on Strad Avenue after organizations as well as Mayor Rob Ortt contacted her to offer their assistance.
“It will all work out,” Dolpp said just hours before the reception was to take place. “Nobody was hurt and that’s the important thing. If the fire happened Saturday night we could have had a tragedy. But it’s an emotional day because the building was important to us, too.”
John White, who started “Rockin’ With Santa” more than a decade ago, said he was barraged with a generous outpouring from the community. He admits Saturday’s fundraiser is crucial to the group’s efforts to raise gifts and money for 130 needy families in the city.
About 50 to 60 gifts already stored inside the Elks edifice were lost in the fire, White said, but dozens more were stacked at the City of Tonawanda Fire Department on Saturday, while the fundraiser itself was moved to the American Legion Post 264 after the commander there, Daniel Misner, shifted other evening activities around to accommodate the not-for-profit.
“Everybody in the community, in all aspects, just came forward and did anything they could do,” White said. “It’s just amazing. We don’t have money in this city, we’re not a wealthy city like Williamsville or East Amherst, but there’s more heart in this city than any city our there.”
Ortt said despite the decimation of the building and its historic value to the city, loss of life would have made the situation much worse. Nonetheless, state law requires the building be demolished because of the exposed asbestos.
“I know initially we had hoped that at least the wall facing Main Street, and the corner there, we had thought would be salvageable,” he said.
Daniel Wingrove, who owns the Dockside Inn across the street from the lodge building on Sweeney Street, said as of Saturday afternoon he had not heard how the fire might effect his business, but he worried it could hurt it.
“My parking lot’s right next to the Elk’s parking lot,” Wingrove said. “I’m also in construction and that’s some pretty significant loss there. I figured it might have to come down with a building like that.”
Other residents who stopped by to see the condition of the building Saturday afternoon were filled with memories of events they had attended over the last several decades.
Billy Martin, who was walking his dog, said he met a friend there who returned home from the Iraq war a few years ago. He’d also regularly attended the lodge’s well-known Friday fish fry along with a pub crawl, which is tied to an annual New Year’s celebration.
“We planned on going there this year, too,” he said. “This place is history.”
Tina Sudezko said she grew up going to Bingo with her mother at the lodge and drove past it Saturday on the way to her daughter’s roller derby practice. She described seeing “flames everywhere.”
“It’s just so sad to see it gone,” she said.
Contact reporter Michael Regan
at 693-1000, ext. 4115.