Fire damages building that housed former Clarke School for the Deaf

  • A fire rips through 49 Round Hill Road in Northampton Friday night. Gazette photo

For The Recorder
Monday, August 08, 2016

NORTHAMPTON — Thomas R. Benoit stood outside his old dormitory Saturday morning with his arms outstretched.

“It’s all gone,” he said, shaking his head. “All gone.”

Benoit, 69, lived in Rogers Hall for four years when he was a student at the former Clarke School for the Deaf. He stayed on the second floor. The building looked like a postcard, he said.

Fifty years later, the 1966 graduate drove from his home in Chicopee on Saturday to confirm what he saw on television that morning: The picture-perfect building had been consumed by flames the night before.

The former Clarke School building at 47-49 Round Hill Road was the site of a three-alarm fire Friday night that tore through the building. The blaze drew 20 on- and off-duty firefighters to the scene and raged until 4 a.m. Saturday, according to Northampton Deputy Fire Chief Tim McQueston.

Crews from Easthampton, Amherst, Holyoke, Williamsburg, Whately, Hatfield, Hadley and Southampton battled the blaze Friday night, according to a statement from the Northampton Fire Department.

By Saturday afternoon, McQueston deemed the property at 49 Round Hill Road a total loss. Two families were displaced from 47 Round Hill Road.

Investigators swarmed the scene and caution tape kept curious neighbors away from the wreckage.

The air was stale as firefighters sprayed water onto hot spots throughout the day Saturday. The building at 49 was charred and the roof had caved in. Piles of crumpled, ashy wood sat on either side of the front door.

Investigators have not found a cause or a point of origin, according to McQueston. The fire remains investigation.

The two buildings at the address are joined by a connector. No. 49, the site of most of the damage, was vacant and under renovation to become an apartment building. No. 47 is a 22-unit apartment building that opened to tenants July 1. About half of the units are occupied, according to residents.

McQueston said the flames did not make it across the firewall into 47, but tenants may not return to their apartments because a quarter of the building was damaged by smoke and water.

According to McQueston, the Red Cross helped three displaced residents Friday night. Others found their own accommodations.

For Sam Hughes, of Specialized Construction in Southwick, the loss was personal. Hughes, who lives in Holyoke, is a subcontractor who has been working on the renovation since the spring.

“It’s an absolute tragedy,” Hughes said. “To see the amount of work put in by the architect, the engineer, the town planning commission, the historical commission, the contractor. To have it disappear in one night is absolutely devastating.”

Hughes called the building his “home away from home” because he and his team have spent so much time working there. Specialized Construction rebuilt the structure from the inside, installing 47-foot beams and cutting new stairwells. It was hard work, Hughes said, especially in the dog days of summer.

With the hard labor nearly complete, Hughes said he was looking forward to installing drywall in the building and adding final touches like trim and other carpentry work in the months ahead.

“You finish all the hard work on Thursday, and see it burn down on Friday,” Hughes said. “It’s really just shocking.”