ThrowbackThursday: 60 years since the Palace Block fire in Meriden

ThrowbackThursday: 60 years since the Palace Block fire in Meriden

Record-Journal


Editor’s note: This week marks 60 years since the devastating Feb. 26, 1957, blaze that consumed the Palace Block, killing two people and changing the downtown landscape. The following story, by Steven Scarpa, was originally published on the 50th anniversary of the fire, Feb. 26, 2007.

o  o  o

MERIDEN — Matthew Dominello was trying to sleep in his home on North Spring Street on Feb. 26, 1957, when he heard the wail of sirens in the night.

He was used to listening to sirens from the fire stations, but the number of them was nothing he had ever heard before.

“I remember getting woken up by it. You hear all of the sirens and think, ‘What the heck is going on?’” Dominello recalled.

The Palace Block , a major downtown gathering spot in the area of Hanover and Colony streets, was on fire. It was a blaze that killed tenants Roland Phaneuf and Fred Werner and caused about $650,000 in damage. Fifty years later, the fire and its aftermath were still fresh in the mind of those who saw it.

“To see the sight of it — it really went through hell,” Dominello said.

The fire was reported at about 1:15 a.m., although it is possible it could have started well before then. Tenants pounded on their neighbors’ doors, trying to alert them to the flames before fleeing themselves. Despite their efforts, emergency personnel from Meriden and many surrounding communities still had to repeatedly enter the burning building to take out older tenants.

The blaze went out of control quickly. While the old buildings might have been brick on the outside, their framing was wood. That, combined with the presence of large elevator shafts, caused the fire to spread more quickly than firefighters could handle.

Crowds formed to watch the fire, the likes of which had not been seen in years.

“It took the whole corner of Hanover and Main out of the picture,” said local historian Richard McBride. “The Palace Block was one of the fixtures of downtown Meriden for years and years.”

Yellow taxis were used to transport people to the hospital. Trains were halted from passing through downtown because firefighters were running water hoses to hydrants on the other side of the railroad tracks.

Fire invaded the Alling Rubber Company, a sporting goods store nearby, setting off the stock of ammunition in the building. Policemen warily eyed the fire from the rooftops, keeping track of how far it was spreading.

George Church, a city resident, worked at a bank next door to the Palace Block. Water from the fire ran through the basement of the bank as he and his co-workers tried to clean the mess the next day.

“The place smelled of smoke forever. We had all kind of people came to try and get rid of the odor,” Church said.

By all accounts, the fire was easily seen all over Meriden, culminating in each wall of the building individually imploding about an hour later.

“A combination of soaring flames and a low cloud ceiling made a spectacular glow visible for miles. The flames at one time were so bright that the front of the YMCA on Crown Street was illuminated as if by daylight, according to a report from the Morning Record, an ancestor of the Record-Journal.

William Shea went to see the fire to make sure his future father- in-law, an assistant fire chief, was safe.

“It was a frightening fire, because we were all concerned it was going to destroy a good section of what was then downtown Meriden. It was a terrible conflagration,” said Shea, an attorney and former mayor.

Judge Selig Schwartz, owner of the property, was summoned by police from his vacation in Florida to deal with the disaster, a process complicated by lawsuits that would not be resolved for years.

“It was a sad ending to my trip to Florida to come home and find the property in ruins,” Schwartz told a reporter. “But my deepest regret is for the tenants who suffered so severely from the fire, and especially for Mr. Werner and Mr. Phaneuf, who haven’t been found.”

The men would be found later in an especially gruesome fashion. Phaneuf’s charred body was found in the ruins of the building two days later. According to later reports, the 48-year-old Meriden High School graduate had just been promoted to a position of prominence in New York City and was planning to get married.

Church knew Phaneuf through his work at the bank next to the Palace Block.

“He had a safety deposit box,” Church recalled. “He was very pleasant, very sociable.”

Werner, 68, was discovered by a bulldozer clearing the land.

Local industrialist and politician Horace C. Wilcox constructed the Palace Block in 1870.

“The reason they called it the Palace Block is because it was such an elegant building … It was very Victorian,” McBride said.

In an odd twist, Wilcox was replacing a cluster of buildings, including a bank and a post office that had been destroyed by a fire the year before.

The building was a mix of corporate offices, retail stores, restaurants and apartments. Several dentists made their home on the Palace Block and radio station WMMW was housed upstairs.

It was the home of the city’s lone Chinese food place, the very popular Far East Restaurant, and a pair of unique local haunts, Michael’s Restaurant, known colloquially as Dirty Mike’s, and Shulte’s Cigar Store, said Ken Cowing, local historian.

Dirty Mike’s, a lunch counter, had a particular attraction, he said.

“It was a congenial hole-in-the-wall restaurant,” Cowing said.

Like something out of a Damon Runyon story, cops, bookies, reporters and assorted business types would congregate there for morning coffee and freshly baked pies cooling on garbage cans outside.

“When the train came through you held onto to your coffee cup because of the vibration of the train on the tracks,” Cowing said.

By 1957, the buildings had lost some of their former luster. Tenants sued Schwartz after the fire, saying the building was in disrepair.

“It had seen better days,” McBride said.

“It was kind of a messy area. It wasn’t very fancy,” Church said.

No cause was ever found responsible for the fire. Cowing believes vagrants staying in the easily accessible basement caused the fire.

“Nothing was established beyond doubt, but there was easy access,” Cowing said.

In the 1960s, the area was targeted for urban renewal. What resulted was that some of the property was taken for street widening.

One might think the fire was a turning point in the deterioration of downtown, but the blaze had little to do with it, historians agree. The rise of the motor vehicle and the advent of shopping malls doomed many downtown sections of cities across Connecticut. Meriden was no exception.

“The big thing that did in the downtown was either the business that went out of business or those that moved out of downtown,” McBride said.


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