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Day of the fire storm in Lynn

17 buildings ruined, hundreds flee as flames envelop former factories

The aftermath of the massive 1981 fire in Lynn.
The aftermath of the massive 1981 fire in Lynn. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

In less than twelve hours, yesterday's conflagration in Lynn annulled the city's ambitious, five-year effort to rehabilitate its ancient downtown shoe factory district, burned out established and budding businesses, gutted buildings that were to have gotten a new life and destroyed more than a thousand jobs in a city that cannot spare one.

Millions of dollars are involved, some of it provided by Lynn taxpayers, some of it by the federal government, some of it by private investors.

Kevin Geaney, the director of city planning for Lynn, estimated a loss of at least $35 million in direct damage. What the loss in jobs, added costs for the homeless and the costs of clearing the area will be, he could not say.

Most of the 13 buildings flanking Broad street that were gutted or destroyed yesterday morning, some of them eight-story Edwardian industrial structures, were either the homes of long-established firms, had been converted to middle-income apartments and housing for the elderly or were scheduled to be the homes of new businesses.

At the south end of the devastated area, the long-planned North Shore Community College campus was to have been built, partly on vacant land and partly in the existing red-brick structures, such as the old Goldberg Furniture Co. warehouse. All of them yesterday were gutted, in ruins, and will now have to be knocked down.

In the last three years, since the actual rehabilitation began, the city had spent $4 million of its own money on some of the old factory buildings, and another $14 million in federal money had gone into the project, according to rough estimates made by city officials yesterday.

The North Shore college was to have cost another $26 million in state and federal funds, and that cost will now increase, Geaney said, because it will have to be redesigned.

"We will be redoubling our efforts to rebuild the downtown area," Geaney said. "But we will lose a year, at least."

There is no way of saving buildings that had been burned hollow, said Stephen Hamilton, an architect who had spent the last three years rehabilitating Marshall's Wharf, a building that was to have been a multistory condominium for industries.

The concept, novel for this area but widely practiced in the industrial cities of the Midwest, had attracted investors from as far away as Milwaukee. Such a condominium, explained Mary Clutchey of the city's economic development office, allows a small industrial plant to buy a part of a building and share with other tenants the overhead costs that it would normally have to bear alone.

Hamilton explained that the buildings, built after a similar fire in the same area in l889, had been of sound structure but that when the timber framework within the brick walls was burned out yesterday, the brick walls lost their bracing and collapsed. The only walls left standing were those braced by masonry elevator shafts or stairwells.

Some buildings which were left untouched by fire were damaged nonetheless by cascading tons of brick, among them a former supermarket lately converted to the Roosevelt Field Flea Market.

In all, at least 18 businesses were destroyed, among them a recently established tool and die company that had planned to specialize in so-called steel-rule dies for the leather industry that was, until yesterday, one of the dominant economic activities of Lynn and the most dominant one in the burned- out area.

Northeast Cutting Die, Clutchey said, had just moved into the Marshall's Wharf condominium last week, and Oxford Hopkins Co., a shoe machinery firm, had been scheduled to move in soon.

Another of the businesses destroyed was the Walter Dyer Leather Co., whose building was in the middle of the conflagration. Like all the buildings in the area, Dyer's building was a venerable structure whose heavy oak and pine timbers had had nearly 100 years to dry out and become shot through with cracks.

(Dyer, Lynn's most celebrated eccentric and a sometime philanthropist, gained brief and dubious fame last Dec. 21 when he hired an airplane to drop $1500 in one-dollar bills onto Central Square, which is directly next to the burned out area. A stiff breeze aloft blew the bills out to sea and Dyer was roundly denounced for his pains.)

Dyer employed about 20 people, including many members of his family in his leather manufacturing and importing business.

Benson Shoe, with about 200 employees, had been doing a brisk business in anticipation of the holiday season. A tearful ex-employee, who did not wish to give her name, said, "We were so busy. We were making overtime."

Business had also been reported good at a two-story machine shop at the fringe of the devestating fire.

The Sterling Machine Co., owned by Thomas Costin and Alexander Struzziero, had been reported humming before Thanksgiving turning out special parts for the jet engines that General Electric's Lynn plant builds.

"There is a foot of water on the top floor and two feet on the ground floor," Struzziero said. "We don't know just what the damage is. (Today* we are all coming in to take stock of the situtation."

Struzziero and Costin employ 50 people, many of whom had gathered yesterday in a futile attempt to save their workplace.

Costin had been in the building when a blast of heat from the burning adjacent eight-story Benson building blew out a window and sent a column of fire inside.

"He kept it at bay with a fire extinguisher," his partner Struzziero said. "He kept it at bay until the fire engines got here."

Struzziero said he expects water damage to be severe. All his equipment is precision machinery such as Hardinge automatic lathes and Swiss screw machines.

Theirs are some of the 1500 jobs that city development director Edward Calnan estimates have been lost. Another 300 to 400 were to have been created by businesses moving into renovated buildings.

The rehabilitation of this old industrial city's downtown was to have been "Lynn's great step forward," Mayor Antonio Marino had been fond of saying.

The mayor, who was just "heartsick," an aide said, spent all day yesterday walking through the area, making public appeals, and conferring with his aides and with Gov. Edward J. King. "I feel bad. I can't slack up - you can't, you just can't," he said.

Gov. King, who had flown in by helicopter, yesterday declared a state of emergency for Lynn, the first step in securing federal emergency relief and aid, such as low cost loans.

King promised Mayor Marino that the state's request for federal emergency assistance will be on its way to Washington this afternoon.

This morning at 11, Marino plans to meet in his office with the governor, with his and the governor's top aides, businessmen affected by the fire, and state and federal officials.

Among the latter is expected to be David M. Sparks, New England regional director of the Federal Emeregency Management Agency.

John Lovering, deputy state Civil Defense director, said that he expects that meeting to result in some plan of action for helping displaced businesses.

Rebuilding the burned-out business area and redesigning the college to fit the new reality will be a high priority, Geaney said yesterday, something for which the governor had assured his support.

But one aspect of the loss is irrecoverable, said Calnan. "This was historic district," he said. "That is why it is an irreplaceable loss to the city."

 Day of the fire storm in Lynn (Boston Globe, 11/29/81)
 List of injured in Lynn fire (Boston Globe, 11/29/81)
 Federal aid tight, senators tell Lynn (Boston Globe, 12/1/81)
 JEREMIAH MURPHY: A tough old city (Boston Globe, 12/1/81)
 How they fought the Lynn fire (Boston Globe, 12/4/81)
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