Owner of historic Franklin theater hopes to rebuild after major fire

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:52

    FRANKLIN-The new owner of the former Franklin Theater, which was extensively damaged in a fire last week, said he'd like to attempt to save whatever he can of the historic building. "Our intention is to refurbish what's there and not raze the building," said Clifton-based owner Domenick DiMinni. "We really can't do much except secure the building and make sure nobody goes in there. I think there's still some more investigation that needs to be made as to the cause of the fire." The building, which first opened in 1914 as a theater and hosted performances by such noted thespians as Ethel Barrymore, caught fire around 1:15 a.m. on Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving. The fire apparently began in one of the building's two third-floor units, DiMinni said. The fire gutted much of the building and destroyed part of the roof, displacing all 13 tenants who had lived there. The borough has declared the building structurally unsound. The building was born as a theater and later was a movie house until 1970, when it closed. It was converted to apartments, but the original stage remained in the heart of the building. Betty Allen, the Franklin Historical Society president, said that two first-floor apartments were constructed in front of the theater shell and adjoined "what originally was the lobby on either side." Even after a renovation in the early 1990s, "the whole shell of the theater was still there," she said. "The other apartments were built on the second and third floors," she added. The building's superintendent, Jerry Dufford, who lived in apartment six on the third floor, was the first to notice the fire in the other apartment on his floor. As smoke alarms squawled, Dufford got his wife, infant son and cat out of the building and also alerted the other tenants, who all evacuated the theater without injury. "He did a very heroic thing in there," said DiMinni. "He made sure everybody got out of the building. The fire was already up on the roof by then. Everybody got out. They lost all that they had." The fire is thought to have started when the tenant in apartment five left french fries cooking in oil unattended while he temporarily left the building. The blaze quickly spread to the roof, and the water required to extinguish it inflicted heavy damage on the interior of the building. There were also two other cats in the building, one of whom was later rescued, DiMinni said. The other one may have left the building on its own. "I'm very thankful they all escaped without harm," Mayor Doug Kistle said. "I'm just hoping they can restore it and get it back to something nice now. That will be up to Mr. DiMinni." The new owner said he was planning to have the building inspected by his private insurers this past Monday, as well as by another expert before determining if any of the structure is salvageable. "This was a big fire," DiMinni explained. "The roof burned right through. To put out a fire of that capacity, you need a lot of water in there." DiMinni said about two thirds of the roof and both third-floor units are "gone," and that the second-story units sustained heavy water damage, along with some fire damage as well. "The first-floor units were just completely flooded by water damage," he said. The original theater stage did not burn, but it, too, sustained water damage. The building's new owner said the third-floor tenant had been behind in rent payments, and that a complaint had been filed against him in court. DiMinni also said "he was a nuisance to other tenants," and that police had been alerted on more than one occasion about his behavior. DiMinni also said that according to another tenant, the third-floor renter had already found another place to stay and had begun moving some of his furniture. The Duffords, meanwhile, have found another home, while others were still coping with their losses. "I really feel bad for the people there because they lost everything they had," the owner added. "We'll try to save what's there now. The roof is gone and the third-floor apartments are gone, but if we could save the perimeter walls, that would be something."