By Paul Wolterbeek, RCN Staff
Tuesday, January 30, 1990
HAMPTON -- The investigation into the four alarm blaze that ripped through a historic building at the town center has been halted until more debris can be removed to ensure the building is more safely accessible to fire inspectors.
No cause had yet been found by Monday afternoon for the blaze that drew a vast number of people out in the early morning hours Saturday [January 27, 1990] to watch as the Odd Fellows Block, completed in 1894, was gutted.
The fire began at about 1:20 a.m. and was only declared under control after about four hours. Spectators reported hearing the famous four-faced clock peal for the last time at 3 a.m. although it was engulfed in flame.
"They are still investigating it, they are going to clear away some of the debris once the bids come in and some estimates come in from the insurance company," said Gordon Webb, a trustee of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Rockingham Post 26
The fire destroyed the nearly 100-year-old assembly hall, as well as two stores and one vacant shop all located on the first floor of the building. One shop, a hair salon, has relocated to temporary quarters elsewhere in town, but immediate plans for a neighboring dress shop were not available by press time.
The building consisted of a large hall with two anterooms on the second floor, as well as a top floor with a game room and main hall with a stage where the Exeter Players troupe once performed, Webb said. The top floor also sported a kitchen.
The basement, where fire inspectors believe the blaze began, was used only as storage space. Webb said the basement had electric outlets, and was also the location of the gas heater that warmed the entire building.
Fire Chief William Sullivan said the nature of the building made the blaze tough to extinguish.
"It's a big old building, and buildings of this vintage are what we call in this business, structures of balloon-frame construction," said Sullivan, adding there was much open space between floors and partitions, allowing fire to spread quickly.
"You could go up in the attic and throw a rock down the partitions and it would come out clear all the way down in the cellar," said Sullivan.
"I think that fire had a good hold on that building before we even got the alarm," said Sullivan.
He said there were probably about 100 to 120 men on the scene, with still more offering coverage at the two fire stations.
An alarm box alerted firefighters at 1:22 a.m., and the blaze was upgraded to a four-alarm fire within 14 minutes. Companies who provided mutual aid at the scene were Exeter, Newburyport, Hampton Falls, Portsmouth, Rye, Seabrook, Salisbury, and North Hampton. And firefighters from Greenland and Amesbury assisted by offering station coverage..
The blaze was declared under control soon after 5 a.m., but firefighters could not enter the building until a crane was sent from the Hutchinson Construction company at 7:45 a.m.
The crane was used throughout the day to remove debris. The clock tower, the best known feature of the building, was dismantled Sunday morning as a safety precaution against its possible collapse.
No injuries reported to civilians or firefighters, other than minor falls because of slippery conditions.
The blaze also resulted in snarled traffic conditions for most of Saturday and also late Sunday morning when roads to the center of town were completely blocked off. Traffic along busy Route 1 was diverted onto Winnacunnet Road and High Street.
The hall had been used as recently as Thursday by a Brownie Scout troop, and was reported to be unoccupied when the fire broke out. Sullivan said the structure contained only shops and dispelled a report of a dwelling over one of the shops in the building.
By Saturday, the building was turned over to leaders of the Order of Odd Fellows. They were allowed use of the crane to retrieve property. Witnesses said they saw items as diverse as a funeral casket, furniture, a ceremonial bible, pictures, a large mask, lances, costumes, and other material being retrieved.
There were reportedly about 40 to 50 members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Rockingham Post No. 26 with about 70 members of the Rebekahs.
Odd Fellows met at the hall two Wednesdays of each month, while the Rebekahs met on two Tuesdays. The space was also used by the Brownies and at the request of other groups.
John Eastman of Exeter, the Noble Grand of the Odd Fellows, said he first arrived at the fire scene at about 7 a.m., only an hour before the crane arrived to begin to tear the venerable structure apart.
He said his brother Glyn Eastman, a selectman, had been on the scene and heard the bell issue its final tone at 3 a.m.
"My brother said he heard it ring the last time with flames shooting up all around it," said John Eastman. "You know, the town is never going to be the same with that gone."