By Wayne T. McCabe
President, Sussex County Historical Society
For over 150 years, Spring Street has been the prime commercial retail area of Newton. Originally, there were residential buildings on the street from the intersection of Moran Street extending in an eastward direction down to the former railroad yards. These buildings were either adaptively reused for commercial purposes or replaced with structures that combined commercial uses on the first floor with offices, retail, lodge rooms, or residential apartments on the upper floors. For the most part, these “newer” structures were built between 1880 and 1930. Many were constructed with brick or brick fronts, which created the appearance of structural stability and long-term permanence.
One of these newer buildings was located at 132-138 Spring Street. Like other commercial buildings on Spring Street, this structure housed both commercial establishments on the first floor and either apartments or lodge rooms on the second and third floors. During this time, many of the commercial businesses were prone to moving from one location to another, while a few retailers stayed in a single location for quite a while.
In 1890, a clothing store occupied the left half of the first floor of this building. There was a grocery store on the right side. The second and third floors had a total of six apartments. Seven years later, the clothing store was replaced by a bakery, while all of the other spaces remained the same. By 1903, the grocery store was replaced by a fruit and candy store, and an apartment was added to the right rear of the building. A small telegraph office had been added to the right side of the structure. The six apartments on the second floor also remained unchanged except for a narrow balcony that was added for the apartments on the second floor.
The building to the left of this property is the Waldmere Hotel, which was erected in 1906 in the late period of the Mansard style of architecture. The hotel has a total of 41 rooms in the top three floors and a restaurant and bar on the first floor.
In 1911, the uses of this building remained the same, except for the baker who relocated to another building on the same street. This left a vacant storefront on the street, which was relatively uncommon at that time. Around 1915, the owner of the building added a fourth floor to the structure in the form of a Mansard roof, creating additional space for more apartments and storage. This owner also removed the second-floor balcony that had been installed a little over 10 years earlier.
By 1916, the Newton Gas Company had moved their offices to the left side of the first floor. The candy and fruit seller was still operating his business here, and the first-floor apartment was converted into an area to make ice cream to be sold in that store. The telegraph office was replaced by a cobbler.
Over the next 24 years, businesses moved in and out of the first floor, while the apartments remained relatively unchanged. The sole exception to this was the conversion of one of the second-floor apartments into a shop for a local tailor.
FIRE CONSUMES THE BUILDING
In the early morning hours of Monday, October 28, 1940, the second serious fire to hit the business community of Newton broke out in this building. At this time, the building was owned by Miss Ruth Weinstein of New York City and was home to five families, a grocery store, a restaurant, a tailor shop, and a shoemaker shop.
Just five minutes before the fire was noticed, police officer Emmett Leeper had passed by the front of the structure and had not seen any evidence of a fire. At that same time, Mr. Kohler Meyer had been walking down the alleyway from J.R. Roof’s garage and entered the rear of Fogelson’s bakery; he did not see an indication of a fire.
At 2:15 in the morning, Constantine Costa, who resided in one of the apartments with his mother, discovered a raging fire in the rear portion of the building.
By the time the fire was detected, the blaze had already started to consume the rear of the first floor and was quickly leaping up to the second. The flames reached an oil tank on the second-floor rear porch. The tank then exploded, adding to the level of growing havoc. Flames had now engulfed the majority of the rear of the building.
Costa went into the building to wake his mother and get her out of the burning structure. He also roused the other tenants to evacuate them. These fellow occupants of the building included Mr. and Mrs. Fred Stickles, Mr. and Mrs. Coley Drake, Mr. and Mrs. Rosario Aceto, and Mr. and Mrs. Elias Hayek. Aceto operated a tailor shop on the second floor and Hayek ran a grocery on the first floor. Hayek’s apartment was in the rear of the store.
In addition to the evacuation of the occupants of Weinstein’s building, 35 guests and employees at the Waldmere Hotel were also told to leave that building and seek shelter nearby. The fire department was concerned about the possibility of the fire spreading to the hotel.
Fortunately, the firehouse was located on the other side of the Waldmere Hotel, just two doors away from the fire. The fire siren was activated and firemen who resided within a short distance were at the scene within three minutes of the alarm’s sounding. Firefighters who resided on the outskirts of town took a little longer to arrive.
The fire department used five streams of water to bring the fire under control. After taking a little over an hour to extinguish the flames, the firemen remained at the building until 6:00 am to make sure there were no flare-ups.
Several firemen, including Chief Charles Grimm, were partially overcome by smoke while battling the blaze. Assistant Chief James Jones received a cut to his scalp from glass in a skylight that broke above him while he was directing the firemen. Dr. F.H. Morrison treated all of the firemen at the site.
Once the fire had been extinguished, Chief Grimm noted that if there had there been a wind, it would have been impossible to keep the fire from spreading to other buildings on Spring Street. Grimm also said that it had been determined that the fire began in the restaurant’s kitchen.
The following day, the building was evaluated and it was determined that it had to be demolished, as the building was damaged beyond repair and could not be brought up to the current construction code requirements. The code at that time required any new buildings or a building undergoing a major renovation to have fireproof exterior walls and other requirements that old wood-framed buildings of the 19th century simply did not meet.
AFTER THE FIRE
Work on the demolition was held off until the spring of 1941. It took a few weeks to completely clear the site of the old building and begin the excavation for the new foundation.
In the place of this four-story building, a new one-story building was constructed, with masonry block walls that complied with the construction code for fireproofing. The new building had a larger footprint than the old building and a full basement for storage.
This became the home of a new grocery store, the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, also known as A & P. The building was ready for occupancy less than six months after work started.
This location was used for a variety of commercial establishments after the A & P moved out. The Bula restaurant was the last tenant in the building, occupying it for many years. Slightly more than 10 years ago, the owners of Bula bought the former ‘76ers restaurant in Byram, rehabilitated that site and opened the restaurant Salt. The building on Spring Street has been empty for the last decade and has deteriorated to the point of requiring demolition.
A local developer, John Kweselait of Kwest Properties, acquired the property and is planning to rehabilitate the site with a new building that will have many of the same architectural features as the building that was destroyed in 1940. The design for this new building will blend in architecturally with the remainder of the buildings on Spring Street, which is part of the heart of the Newton Historic District.
Sussex County Historical Society President Wayne T. McCabe may be contacted at email@example.com.