Chris Rosenblum: Decade after massive fire, rebuilding process continues

In forests, fires bring regeneration, life from destruction.

Underbrush and deadwood burn away, creating light and space for new growth and existing trees. Some seeds need the high temperatures to germinate. Nutrients replenish the soil.

Recovery starts swiftly and strengthens ecosystems. Unfortunately in small towns, though, the opposite is all too frequently true.

Ten years ago from last Friday, a massive blaze torched a block of historic Front Street in Philipsburg. Two red-brick buildings, including an L-shaped one that wrapped from Front to Presqueisle Street along a main intersection, were damaged beyond repair.

Their demolition created a large vacant lot in the heart of the town — a disfigurement that remains today.

I remember seeing the wrecking ball crunch into the L-shaped building, part of which sported distinctive white eaves, molding and window frames. Watching those century-old bricks and beams tumble down to the street in dusty clouds was like witnessing a slow death.

I felt the loss of something irreplaceable.

Gone were more than 29 apartments, a sports store, a bakery, a barbershop, a restaurant and the office of a state senator. A cornerstone of the business district, one of the busiest blocks, had vanished, cut away like an amputation.

At the time, it seemed apocalyptic, as though Front Street had suffered a crippling blow in its efforts to reverse a long economic decline. Business owners tried to stay optimistic.

“I just don’t want to see it an empty lot,” said Gary Williams afterward, who then owned a beauty shop along the street.

And yet, a decade later, it’s still a grassy expanse — no takers, no regeneration.

To be fair, Front Street is hardly down and out. It didn’t succumb to the flames of a long August night.

The renovated Finburg Building, with its art deco stylings, has attracted tenants. Since the fire, improvement projects, including vintage-style street lamps and buried utility lines, have given a facelift to the street. Holt Memorial Library, the elegant Rowland Theatre, farmers markets and summer festivals draw people downtown.

But the open space serves as a doleful reminder that regrowth can be hard.

Bellefonte understands. Nothing has risen from the site of the grand Bush House, formerly one of the town’s signature buildings, in nine years after a fire consumed it. Its demise completely altered the High Street block it once dominated. Talleyrand Park is as picturesque as ever, but the area doesn’t have the same charm as before — and probably never will.

The truth is, small historic towns like Philipsburg and Bellefonte never fully recover from their burns.

If they’re lucky, they rebuild, but they can’t regain the sense of identity, the personality, that went up in smoke. In Bellefonte, a developer intends to construct apartments where the fire-ravaged Garman Opera House stood. His plans call for a brick facade compatible with the surrounding Victorian architecture.

That’s nice, and better than a gaping gap, but not even the most sensitive design can bring back a piece of Bellefonte’s heritage — a major calling card for the town.

In 2005, Walter Swoope, a fixture in the Front Street business community, worried after the fire about the economic consequences of losing the damaged buildings.

“We’re not going to be able to offer people that block as a showpiece of a revitalized historic district,” he said back then.

Of course, the true spirit of towns lies in their people, not in buildings. By that measure, Philipsburg continues to shine. This summer, a raffle for a new pickup truck raised more than $9,000 for the Philipsburg Revitalization Corp.

But appearances matter, especially in towns that count history as a resource. When those communities lose key buildings, they suffer permanent wounds. That’s all the more argument for sprinkler systems and other protective measures, though the costs and logistics of retrofitting old buildings make the issue tricky to resolve.

Loss, however, doesn’t have to be absolute, and I’m hoping someone steps forward and helps a forlorn Front Street block finally see the regrowth it deserves. Though history can’t be replaced, perhaps whatever sprouts next will strengthen the district, infuse it with new vitality.

Someone just needs to plant the seeds.