BETHEL Downtown buildings reopen a year after fire

August 23, 2018

BETHEL — Walking by the two apartment buildings on Greenwood Avenue today, it would be difficult to tell that just over a year ago they were charred and boarded up after a late night fire that took more than 100 firefighters to extinguish.

That night, one of the building owners, Dave Nussbaum, was woken up by a 2 a.m. phone call from the neighboring property owner. The flames had broken out in the adjoining building and were rapidly moving through the downtown structure.

“I raced over to see what was going and was talking to the tenants — some of my tenants had gotten out just in time,” Nussbaum said. “Then, I went back in the morning to see the disaster that was left behind.”

Both buildings, staples of Bethel’s downtown since they were built in the early 1800s, were left in need of complete restoration. The structure where the fire began was later torn down and Nussbaum’s property had significant water and smoke damage.

But just this week, new tenants moved in to the apartments in Nussbaum’s building as the nearly year-long restoration process, led by JP Maguire, came to a close. Next door, commercial tenants moved in and residents will return next week to the rebuilt structure, owner Jeff Bruno said.

The exterior of both buildings, which spent much of the year boarded up or covered during construction, have been returned to a nearly identical version of the original structures. The interiors were also restored — rebuilt in Bruno’s case — and underwent significant upgrades.

“When you look at it from where it was then to where it is now, it’s a world of difference,” said Brian Glasser, director of business development for JP Maguire.

Glasser and Jim Maguire, president and founder of the company, explained how about half of the nearly $800,000 project was spent bringing the historic building up to today’s fire codes.

The roof needed to be completely replaced, the electrical and gas systems redone, the walls insulated and additional firewalls put in. The crews also needed to “jack up” the entire building, which had become tilted over the years, to straighten it.

John Bertanza, the project manager, said his crews had to get creative as they uncovered various obstacles in the century-old building. “It was just the day-to-day challenge of taking something apart and trying to figure out how to put it back together,” he said.

But now that they are completed, the upgrades have made it so “the fire that happened would never be able to happen again,” Maguire added, because the new protections would stop any flames from moving so quickly through the building.

Nussbaum said it also gave him the opportunity to decide how the apartments inside should be laid out. Walls were taken down in each unit to create a more open floor plan instead of the “maze-like” small rooms of the original structure.

“Everything is new and nice and the tenants are thrilled,” Nussbaum said. “JP Maguire did a very good job.”

Next door, the restoration process was different because the building had been torn down, said Bruno, who owns Codfish Hill Construction. He added that he worked closely with JP Maguire and both companies worked with the town’s zoning and fire officials throughout the process.

“Long story short, I got pretty much a vacant lot,” Bruno said. “The actual construction was not much different — construction is construction, but when you’re in tight quarters like that...coordinating supplies and vehicles and dumpsters is a challenge. But, it works out.”

Bruno bought the building from the Staib family, who had owned the property for more than 150 years. The family used to rent out rooms in the building to hatters working in Danbury factories in the 1800 and 1900s.

Judy Staib — whose husband, Edward, left the building to their three children when he died a few months before the fire — said they decided it made sense to sell the building when they realized what the rebuild entailed.

“Unfortunately this happened and we weren’t in a position to put in for a mortgage as big as we had to for the rebuild,” she said. “Eddie was the construction handyman who could fix and work on everything, but it was left to us and none of had the knowledge. We were novices.”

Staib said she had seen Bruno’s work on houses in Bethel and was confident he would do a good job with her husband’s family legacy. She said aside from some changes to the backyard, the reconstruction is the same as what her family intended to do.

“I think it’s beautiful,” Staib said. “He made us proud.”


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