Linda Hamilton and friends watch firefighters work today across the street at her building
By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CENTRALIA – The two streets next to the burned out Dr. Matz building in downtown Centralia will remain closed through tonight after an early morning fire ravaged the historical structure.
“The reason is the integrity of the building itself is in question,” Centralia Police Department Officer John Panco said this afternoon.
The city building inspector will reassess the situation at 7 o’clock tomorrow morning, Panco said.
The gray masonry box-like structure on the southwest corner of Tower Avenue and Main Street was built in 1889; it’s among the oldest buildings in town.
It originally housed National Bank. Dr. Matz was a dentist, according to Panco.
Until today, it was home to Centralia Perk, a coffee shop and antique store which many noted has enlivened the downtown atmosphere with sidewalk seating and space for conversation.
“This is a cornerstone of downtown, right here,” Paige Merriman, who operates a neighboring accounting business, said this morning.
It appeared the interior of the building was totally destroyed, Panco said.
Damaged were five businesses on the lower level – a tattoo shop, a barber shop, a hair salon, an antique store and Curious Betty’s clothing boutique – as well as a dozen apartments on the second floor, according to the building owner.
Crews from four fire departments joined Riverside Fire Authority after the call came just before 2:20 a.m.
Linda Hamilton, who bought the building in 2001, renovated it and opened her coffee shop the following year, said she was awakened by noises in the hallway.
Hamilton said she just last night installed a video surveillance system, which she jumped up to look at.
“It showed people running (down the hall),” she said.
Many of her tenants are college students, she said.
“Jacob Dow saved all of us,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said they encountered black smoke and she thought the flames were on the ground level, coming from Curious Betty’s.
Panco described how Dow helped get the residents out.
“It’s pretty heroic, going into a burning building,” Panco said. “I heard he went door to door, pounding on the doors to wake people up.”
Jim Francis, who owns the Hub Bar and Grill across the street said he arrived about 5:30 a.m. and the fire was still blazing.
“I got down here, it was just chaos,” Francis said. “The building was on fire, water was running down the street,” he said. “What a total loss.”
“I hate to see that happen to her,” he said of Hamilton.
The fire was considered contained at 6 a.m.
Fire crews remained on the scene later this morning, with a hose from atop a ladder truck continuing to spray through the roof.
Stretches of both Tower Avenue and Main Street were still closed and motorists were detoured.
Hamilton was joined by family members across the street, among a small crowd of onlookers.
“You can see, everything’s lost,” she said.
Panco said he didn’t have any information about damage to the building directly south of the Matz building. The power was still shut off to the five or so businesses along the block, he said about noontime.
At the south end of the block, in front of the Fox Theater, the owner of a new frozen yogurt store was armed with a broom to keep the storm drain from backing up.
Jamie Kaiser pointed to what appeared to be soot-laden water that had seeped beneath the glass doors of the theater onto its floor.
“I’m keeping the drain clean,” Kaiser said.
There was talk this afternoon among city officials about possibly bringing in a crane or something similar to take down the walls of the Matz building.
The city building inspector will decide if the building is safe or if it has to come down, Panco said just before noon.
The fire marshal and police detectives are investigating the cause.
Hamilton has had a fire there before. She said it was about two years ago when a homeless person set up camp in her basement and a lamp got knocked over. The damage was minimal.
Ironically, Hamilton said she gave a tour of the upstairs just last week to some of the Centralia firefighters. She was imagining how dangerous it could be to fight a fire in such an old structure, she said. She told them, “(I)f something happens, just let the building go”, she said.
Jeff Miller, president of the Centralia Downtown Association, said he and Paige Merriman thought her accounting and antique doll business adjacent to the Matz building suffered a little smoke damage.
Miller this morning recalled how he had campaigned, unsuccessfully, for businesses in the downtown buildings to install lock boxes, so firefighters could get inside if they needed to.
“A $150 box might have saved me $2,500 for a new door,” he said.
Hamilton’s upstairs apartment was set to be featured in the local newspaper as one of the nicer residences in town, he said.
“Linda’s a dear friend, my heart goes out to her,” Miller said.
Tower Avenue looking north from Locust Street
Looking east up Main Street at the back of the Matz building from Pearl Street
See more photos and read “Breaking news: Downtown Centralia building burns” from Tuesday February 14, 2012 at 8:03 a.m., here, or just scroll down
For even more photos, check Lewis County Sirens on Facebook