Downtown merchants, residents face a fire's aftermath together

The face of a landmark falls

The south face of the landmark downtown building that burned last week begins to fall down with the use of a crane. Much of the building was demolished June 25. Dale Perkins sits atop an adjoining building.

The south face of the landmark downtown building that burned last week begins to fall down with the use of a crane. Much of the building was demolished June 25. Dale Perkins sits atop an adjoining building.

Demolition of the historic building on Route 66 between the Canyon Club and the Red Garter Bed and Bakery -- recently and possibly still owned by Frances Reuter -- began late last week after fire gutted the structure and damaged nearby businesses.

The blaze began on the morning of June 20 and Williams Volunteer Fire Department crews worked diligently to douse the blaze and save nearby businesses. The community came out in droves to assist by providing food and beverages for exhausted firefighters. All seemed well until at about 5 p.m. that same day when crews who were doing a routine check noticed that the blaze had begun to rekindle itself. As the WVFD quickly arrived back on the scene, the building was engulfed once again.

During the first fire, the Canyon Club's outside sign was burned and the Red Garter suffered light smoke damage, but unfortunately, more was on the way.

"We'd had it about half cleaned up," said Red Garter owner John Holst. "It was not a big deal after the first one."

During the second fire, however, Holst's building suffered more smoke and water damage, the estimate of which will not be determined soon. At the same time, the second blaze crept its way into the ceiling of the back area of the Canyon Club, owned by Marc and Teresa Stevens, and destroyed most of the roof structure and dance floor area in the Railroad Avenue half of the establishment.

As reported in last week's issue of the News, over one million gallons of water was used to ultimately douse the fire, and much of it trickled into the basement storage area of the Canyon Club. Teresa Stevens said that the water was all the way up to the second step of a 10-12-step staircase leading down into the basement, causing thousands of dollars in inventory loss, but was optimistic about opening the business back up soon.

"I don't think it's as bad as it looks," Stevens said, explaining that the main front part of the bar was still usable and relatively damage-free.

Mark Stevens estimated the damage to the club to be well over $100,000, not including inventory loss, compressors and possible electrical damage.

Nearby businesses then got another scare on June 22 when crews sifting through the rubble of the old building discovered something suspicious in a lower-level utility closet. Williams Police Department and WVFD officials first thought they had found a bomb, but soon discovered the object was actually a modified marine signal flare, which had not been used or fired. The device was immediately sent to a Phoenix lab for x-rays and fingerprint identification.

Though no final determination has yet been made, authorities are investigating the possibility of arson, due to the suspicious flare and reports by several witnesses who say they saw someone crawling through one of the building's windows, letting people in and out over the HOG Rally weekend.

According to WPD Chief Dan Barnes however, what witnesses may have actually seen was a prospective buyer for the property, which was reported to be in escrow at the time of the blaze. Barnes also said there was evidence of someone doing electrical work on the building during the prior week.

On Thursday and Friday, WPD detectives sifted through the debris and did find scraps of aluminum, the same metal the first flare was made of. Those samples are also being sent to a lab for testing, but Barnes says it may be as much as four weeks or more before results are available.

"What we are looking for is if a similar device was used upstairs to start the fire," said Barnes, adding that the cause of the blaze may still turn out to be accidental.

In the meantime, the city has shouldered the task of hiring Perkins Power Wash, one of only a few certified demolition crews in northern Arizona, to carefully tear the structure down, even though the city does not own the building.

"The city's role in all this is to protect the public's health, safety and welfare," City Manager Dennis Wells said.

The exact cost of the demolition is unclear. According to Wells, the basic job is estimated at $50,000, but could go as high as $76,000 if asbestos is found. Though the city is bearing the up-front cost of the demolition, Wells said he, city staff, and the city attorney are all researching to see if Reuter still owns the building and who the city can seek reimbursement from.

Constructed in 1901, the building has a history that goes almost as far back as the town itself. It was first a one-level structure on the Railroad Avenue side that suffered a fire in that same year. One year later, a second level was added. During its time, Holst says, the building housed saloons, pool halls, and an ornamental iron shop.

Sometime in the 1940s, the Route 66 side of the structure was built and during its time housed a photo studio, a bookstore, and a discount retail store. The entire building was sold to Reuter in 1979 and has been primarily abandoned ever since.

Many longtime residents were saddened by the loss because of the building's historical significance.

"When I saw it on fire, I could have just cried," said Harriet Lockwood, member of the Williams Historical Preservation Commission.

Lockwood, other WHPC members, residents, and city officials were looking to save as much of the structure as possible, but the damage was simply too severe. A structural engineer was hired last week to inspect the damage in the hopes that at least the Railroad Avenue side of the building -- the oldest and most historic part -- could be saved. The south, east and west walls have since been taken down with no possibility of salvage, but no determination has yet been made on if the north side fa�ade can remain.

Demolition crews are clearing the debris from the south side and working towards the north. Once finished, the engineer, according to Wells, will come back in to make the final call on whether or not to bring the north wall down.

If unsalvageable, city officials have instructed Dale Perkins, owner of Perkins Power Wash, to save as many pieces of the north side wall as possible for future reconstruction.

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