TURIN — It was a fire that led to the building of the Brick Block in the Tug Hill village and fire that led to its demise. But if history repeats itself, a better building will rise from the ashes now as it did more than 150 years ago.
The two-story brick structure with large arched windows and stately architectural flourishes replaced a number of wooden structures as a result of a fire that devastated a swash of Turin in the early hours of Christmas 1869.
The blaze started in a harness shop and spread both east, where it leveled the post office and a “two-story wooden building owned by C.G. Riggs, occupied by Riggs, Williams & Fisher as a dry good store,” and west where it “consumed the two and a half story building of C.G. Riggs & Son, occupied by them as a hardware store,” along with a shoe store, a barber shop and a number of residences and other small businesses according to a Dec. 27, 1869 news brief published in the Dec. 29 issue of the Lewis County Democrat newspaper.
While plans were already in the works by January to replace the burnt block of buildings with a brick block, another nearby fire almost took the last of C.G. Riggs’ businesses, a carriage and blacksmith shop.
“By superhuman efforts only, was the building saved. Had it burned, nothing could have saved the extensive carriage manufactory adjoining and the dwelling house of Abeatha Gillet,” reported the Journal and Republican in its Jan. 12, 1870 issue of “another fire.”
Despite the second fire, Mr. Riggs, with an “army of the more substantial citizens (were) ready to invest in the (brick block) enterprise,” according to the same brief.
Lewis County Historical Society President Jonathan Miller said the block that would become a landmark for locals and travelers to the area alike, originally referred to as the C.G. Riggs Brick Block, was designed by A.S. Lanthrop of Utica, built with “brick of superior quality” made locally and completed in November 1870.
Local newspapers through the many decades of the building’s prime usage carried ad after ad for brick block businesses, like R.R. Owens boots and shoes who claimed to have “the best stock of Utica Boots and Shoes ever kept in Turin” in the 1890s.
In addition to various general stores with a wide variety of products, the block has housed a “druggist,” a hardware shop, a harness manufacturer, a ski apparel maker (Kristin International), the Grange, the Masonic Lodge, the well-known Brick Block Inn in the 1970s, a pre-automation — manually set pins — bowling alley, beauty and barber shops, restaurants and a wide variety of services, among others.
The block grew to be not just a focal point but a center for the small Turin community.
“Many memories of setting pins at the bowling alley, I think the Laprees ran it then, Jedicks store, upstairs for Boy Scouts with Howard Leinter, the big hall for drum and bugle practice,” said Darrell Dailey on the Turin Library’s Facebook post about the fire. “(I) remember the fire station on the end... with the library in the back. Small town but so many memories and friends.”
Public records show that Rose McKenna of Mannsville has owned the majority of the Brick Block consisting of 6304, 6306 and 6308 E. Main St. as well as 4180 State Route 26 since 2009.
Ronald Dorn of Lyons Falls owns the corner section of the 6308 E. Main St. area of the brick block, having purchased it in 2008 for $50 from the county, according to the online real property database.
All of the buildings purchased by Ms. McKenna were rated as being in “poor” condition with a desirability rating of 1 — the lowest possible — except for the section at 4180 State Route 26 which was given an overall condition rating of “average” and “2” as the desirability rating.
Although Ms. McKenna said she had intentions to repair and rehabilitate the building, she was not able to make significant inroads into the project having experienced a number of setbacks.
Ms. McKenna said in an interview that she didn’t understand how an empty building with no electricity and heat in much of the building, even a roof in the wet spring weather could have possibly caught fire.
Sgt. Richard Knight of the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office has been investigating the fire and as of Tuesday, was still conducting a number of interviews. He said it was unlikely they would be able to find proof of the cause of the fire considering the total destruction of the building.
County officials have been working through a process to have the building removed because of the safety hazard it posed with one section in a state of partial collapse and condemned the building in January by legislative vote.
In their meeting on Tuesday, the Lewis County board went in to an executive session to discuss “legal options and potential liability” issues for the county relating to the building cleanup, according to county Attorney Joan McNichol. No action was officially taken after the closed-door session.
County Manager Ryan Piche said the board will look into potential funding assistance with the building cleanup from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.