Volume 17 • Issue 24 | Nov. 5 - Nov. 12, 2004

Fire displaces nearby residents, closes Beckett’s

Downtown Express photo by Seth Gottfried

Fire outside 78 Pearl St. early in the morning of Oct. 29 above Beckett’s Restaurant, which is expected to be closed for at least a few months because of water damage. Some of the residents in the adjacent walkup at 76 Pearl St. have not yet moved back to their homes.

By Hemmy So

Chuck DeLaney has to wait until the smoke clears. Literally.

For the past week, the 76 Pearl St. resident has called a hotel room home while waiting for the smoke in his apartment building to dissipate. Caused by the four-alarm fire that scorched the commercial building next door at 78 Pearl St. early Friday morning on Oct. 29, the smokiness and stench linger indefinitely in DeLaney’s apartment.

“The building is pretty smoky,” said DeLaney, who has lived for 29 years in the building. “Probably most if not all the residents have suffered some degree of smoke damage. It’s a big disruption.”

The Department of Buildings closed the badly damaged commercial building at 78 Pearl St., which includes Beckett’s Restaurant.

DeLaney said tenants in three of the four apartments at 76 Pearl St. have not yet moved back to the five-story walkup.

Jeff Johnson and his family, who live on the second floor, have been waiting for the air quality to improve before permanently returning to their home. He, his wife and 5-month old baby have been staying with local relatives since the fire, though they have tried to return home.

“We tried to stay here last night, but won’t try to do that again,” Johnson said on Wednesday. “Our throats are a little raw today.”

Though the apartment building’s air quality has steadily improved since last Friday, fluctuations in air quality due to changes in wind direction have kept residents out. Because the fire likely began on the second floor of 78 Pearl St., Johnson’s apartment has especially suffered from vacillating air quality.

“The charcoal-y smell blows over this way. It’s impossible to get any fresh air at the moment,” he said.

Luckily, Johnson did not suffer much physical damage to his apartment or property, but DeLaney is still trying to determine the extent of destruction the fire and smoke wreaked onto his home. Much of his property has suffered residual damage and scorching, tarnishing his possessions with black burn marks and ash. As part of his cleaning efforts, DeLaney must sort through his items and determine what he can salvage.

DeLaney is getting in touch with the same professional cleaning company he used after 9/11 to help restore his apartment to a comfortable, livable state. He described the conversation with the company as an “oh no, not again” sort of situation. Though he is waiting to see what exactly he’s lost, he does worry about more personal and sentimental items such as his kids’ stuffed animals.

The fire has once again put 76 Pearl St. in the news. Seven years ago, a couple who occupied the top floor mysteriously disappeared. Camden Sylvia and Michael Sullivan vanished on Nov. 7, 1997, and the investigation focused on then-landlord Bob Rodriguez. He never was charged with a crime related to the missing couple but he did eventually plead guilty to tax and credit card fraud uncovered during the disappearance investigation.

Friday morning’s blaze began on the second floor office of 78 Pearl St. Tim Hinchey, a Fire Department spokesperson, said firefighters arrived at the scene at 2:02 a.m., minutes after the fire was called in. Residents at 76 Pearl St. were evacuated shortly after the firefighters arrived. The raging fire soon spread to the upper floors of the 5-story brick building, which was vacant. Four hours later, firefighters had the blaze under control, Hinchey said

“The firemen were in the building all night long and on the roof. They did a really great job,” said DeLaney.

In the process of defeating the fire, however, eleven firefighters suffered minor injuries. One civilian also suffered injuries, Hinchey said. The fire’s cause is still under investigation, although Hinchey said foul play is not suspected.

Milstein Properties, which owns 78 Pearl St., refused to comment on either the fire or damages sustained to the building. The preemptory vacate order posted by the Department of Buildings does offer some explanation of damages, however. Issued due to “imminent danger of the lives and safety of occupants,” the order states that the building sustained “severe fire damage at interior from 2nd to 5th story.” Moreover, the sign indicates that a front section of brickwork buckled and a burned wood girder and support columns on the second and third floors are affecting the building’s structural stability.

In addition to 76 Pearl St., the residential building at 44 Water St., situated directly behind the burnt building, also suffered some damage. According to Vinnie Coppola, who owns the first-floor restaurant Davinci Pizza at 44 Water St., a few windows on the upper floors were broken when firefighters sprayed the building. His pizza parlor suffered only minor damage, with a few wet ceiling tiles to replace, he said.

Perhaps the biggest victim of the fire is Beckett’s, which occupied the first floor of 78 Pearl St. A popular eatery frequented by Wall Street financiers, a simple sign posted on the blond plywood board covering the former front doors informs customers that “Beckett’s Restaurant will be closed until further notice due to a fire in the above office” and directs them to sister restaurant Waterstone Grill across the street.

The owner of the two restaurants, Ronan Downs, looked ruefully at the unrecognizable vestiges of Beckett’s.

“We’ll be out of business for months,” he said. “The only saving grace is that we have Waterstone Grill.”

Beckett’s suffered extensive water damage from the building’s Friday morning dousing. The walls, floors and computers are completely saturated, Downs said. He has not yet entered the restaurant to make a complete damage assessment, but he hopes that he’ll be inside by the end of the week.

In the meantime, Downs helped relocate Beckett’s 25 employees. Waterstone Grill and Bianconi Cafe, which Downs also owns, took on some employees, and he put in calls to restaurant-owning friends to help secure jobs for the rest.

“We’re coming back bigger and better,” said executive chef Conor Powell, who heads the kitchens at Beckett’s and Waterstone Grill. Downs and his partners plan to hire renowned contemporary designer and architect Philippe Starck to redesign the restaurant. The eventual reopening will be its second in five years. Previously, flood damage had wrecked the upscale pub.

“Beckett’s was a [Standard & Poor’s] favorite,” said an associate director in S&P’s structured finance department who expressed disappointment in the restaurant’s closing. “It was good. They had great fish-and-chips.”

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