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After fire, businesses brace for salvage job

Fri., July 25, 2008

Most of blaze confined to studio

Condominium developers and future owners, a year-old steakhouse and a longtime photography studio await word today on what they’ll salvage from downtown Spokane’s first three-alarm fire in years.

The word from authorities is that some of them might be more fortunate than initially thought. A thick brick wall likely contained much of Thursday’s blaze to the northwest corner of the Joel building on South Post Street. That section of the building housed the Dorian photography studio.

The thick wall may have limited damage to smoke and water in the rest of the building. However, water collapsed a ceiling in the rear of Churchill’s Steakhouse.

The fire began around 4:30 a.m., and most of the city’s firefighters fought it for much of the day, with dark plumes of smoke visible for miles. Spokane County personnel and the Washington State Patrol were called to assist.

Dorian employee Jason Poss said the business recently installed several pieces of new equipment in the basement, an area officials said was destroyed along with the studio’s first floor. Poss said Dorian had been preparing for fall, when it does 80 percent of its business. A note on the company’s Web site said school picture days would be held as scheduled, despite the fire. “All of us at Dorian thank you for your prayers and good wishes,” the note said.

Eight of 16 residential condominiums being developed on the building’s second and third floors had been scheduled for a walk-through with contractors Monday. Sales on three were set to close Aug. 1, said developer Ron Wells, who worked on the project with his wife, Julie, and partners Bill Main Jr., Sarah Leverett-Main, and Brian and Kim Main.

“We had just come to the end of a 2  1/2-year building process,” said Leverett-Main, who received a call at 7 a.m. Thursday from a worried buyer. As far as the developers knew, none of the prospective buyers had sold their current homes yet. “Literally, next week, those units were closing,” she said.

Ron Wells said the first three buyers were from this region and intended to use their lofts as primary residences. The condos were to be purchased as shells, meaning the buyers were to finish the kitchens and bathrooms and construct additional interior walls. The shells about to be sold ranged in size from 800 to 1,350 square feet and in price from $310,000 to $390,000, Wells said.

“It’s why you have insurance and good insurance,” said Wells, who was traveling Thursday but received updates from his partners. “I’m hoping we can rebuild the building. It could have been a lot worse. Nobody lost their life.”

A firefighter was injured early Thursday after falling through the first floor, but Shawn Poole soon returned to the scene on crutches to support his fellow firefighters after being treated at a hospital. He suffered a twisted knee and bruised ribs.

Churchill’s Steakhouse’s principal partner, Bill Alles, stood distraught at the fire, surrounded by family and friends, for much of the day.

“An awful lot of people put their hearts into this place,” Alles said. “For them to lose their jobs and to go through this, it’s heart-wrenching.”

He spent much of the day calling other restaurant owners, trying to find work for his more than 30 employees.

“I’ve been asked 100 times today ‘Will you reopen?’ ” Alles said. “I don’t see any way we possibly can. We put over $3 million into this thing, and it’s gone.”

Churchill’s opened last August on the first floor and in the basement of the southwest side of the building. It had expensive equipment and furnishings to match its premium prices. The kitchen was equipped with an infrared broiler that could reach 2,200 degrees. The restrooms had marble floors.

The business was seeking approval for a high-end cigar club that it developed at a cost of more than $500,000. Alles had been waiting to hear whether the club would pass muster with anti-smoking laws.

The steakhouse had a rough first year. It closed briefly during the winter because of flooding caused when a sprinkler head burst and dumped hundreds of gallons of water into the building.

Joel Ferris Jr., whose family owned the Post Street building for 39 years, said there had been smaller fires throughout its history. He said huge timbers – as thick as 8 by 12 inches – had withstood those fires, and because of their size would probably outlast steel under similar conditions.

“That’s probably why the whole thing hasn’t collapsed,” he said.

“It’s a tough building.”

When Ferris’ father bought the building in 1966, he said, it was more or less abandoned.

“It was one of the early urban renewal projects,” he said, that won some architectural awards. The Dorian portion of the building was sold to that business in 1979, Ferris said, adding: “It’s pretty vertically self-contained. It probably acted like a chimney.”

Staff writers Alison Boggs, Jody Lawrence-Turner, Bert Caldwell, Meghann M. Cuniff and Jim Camden contributed to this report.


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