110-year-old building a total loss

A fire early Tuesday gutted the 110-year-old Altoona Hotel – a restaurant whose small size belied its stature as a community institution.

Firefighters got the call at 2:10 a.m. and remained on scene until mid-morning through temperatures that bottomed out at 8 degrees – with a wind-chill factor of minus 10, according to Deputy Fire Chief Mike Tofano and the National Weather Service in State College.

Officials don’t know the cause but are investigating, Tofano said.

Owners Bjorn and Lisa Reed plan to rebuild but haven’t decided whether to do so on the current site in the Knickerbocker neighborhood, according to restaurant manager Meghan Hall.

“We’re still in the early stages of fact-finding,” Hall said. “We need to look at the pros and cons.”

Bjorn Reed and Hall drove by the site repeatedly Tuesday and were “shell-shocked,” according to Hall.

“We sit there and stare,” she said.

But they’re thankful no one was hurt.

“At the end of the day, it’s just a place and material possessions,” Hall said.

Fortunately, the business enjoys a “solid base of customers” that should provide a foundation for rebuilding, she said.

Reed, who owned the restaurant since 2007, declined to be interviewed, but he released a statement saying he’s “deeply saddened to see such a wonderful landmark disappear.”

The statement asked “to keep our staff in your thoughts during this very difficult time.”

Safety concerns outlined by officials Tuesday will make it impossible to preserve the old building’s brick shell, even if they rebuild in place, Hall said.

In the aftermath of the fire, the roof of the 1 1/2 story brick structure was gone, collapsed into the interior.

Windows were out, and wisps of steam or smoke rose from debris inside.

Ice encased a half-dome canopy at the front entrance and ornamental grass in a planter and flower boxes along the front wall.

Ice also coated the streets and the hotel’s parking lots.

Among the fire’s early witnesses was Daniel Mainello, who lives across the street.

Mainello got a call from a neighbor at 2:16 a.m., smelled smoke and at first thought his house was on fire.

Later, as he watched the restaurant burn from his living room, he recalled the February 1967 middle-of-the-night fire that gutted the original three-story structure.

He was working for the railroad at that time and living in Harrisburg, so he didn’t see the blaze, but it had a profound influence on his future.

The following August, the co-owner of the burned hotel, an acquaintance named Angelo Aluise, asked him to buy the property.

The offer came at an opportune time, because the railroad was transitioning to Conrail and eager to jettison employees.

So he took a severance buyout and with the help of Aluise, worked with a contractor to reduce the hotel building to 1 1/2 stories, reopening it as a restaurant and bar, with no lodging, while retaining the name.

He ran it for 25 years, living in the attic for 18.

Tough conditions

The cold made it hard for firefighters Tuesday, according to Tofano.

It froze the first hydrant they tried, probably because of a leaking valve below ground that allowed water to rise into the hydrant itself – forcing firefighters to resort to using a pair of other hydrants nearby.

It froze the spray from the hoses onto the trucks, making it hard to open some compartments to get their tools.

And it froze the spray and runoff on the pavement, making it hazardous to walk and leading to slips and falls, Tofano said.

Firefighters’ gear gave them some protection from the frigid temperatures, but those who got wet from the spray or sweat got “pretty cold” anyway, Tofano said.

Firefighters can’t wear clothing that “wicks” moisture away from their bodies, like runners do, because when the temperatures rise at fire scenes, the material can “shrink wrap” firefighters’ bodies, he said.

City highway yard workers helped provide traction on the pavement by putting down salt, Tofano said.

The Salvation Army provided some comfort with warm beverages from its canteen truck.

And the Fire Department hazmat bus gave firefighters a warm place to rest.

All hands on deck

The department turned out a total of 25 firefighters – the on-duty complement of 13, an off-duty chief and a single contingent – the “second alarm” – of call-ins from home, according to Tofano.

Firefighters worked inside the structure for 90 minutes, until the roof burned through and threatened to give way, Tofano said.

At that time, he ordered everyone to evacuate.

The order goes out verbally and through a distinctive “warble” tone from the 911 center to the radios of individual firefighters.

A yellow fire hose protruding from the rubble inside, its end visible in a doorway, was evidence of their hasty departure.

“Whenever the evacuation tone is sounded, our firefighters are trained that that’s what to do,” Tofano said. “No piece of hose is worth one of our firefighter’s lives.”

The hose is non-retrievable, he said.

After firefighters evacuated, they continued to attack from outside, Tofano said.

The building is “pretty much a total loss,” Tofano said.

He estimated the value to be at least $100,000.

The Reeds have insurance, Tofano said.

Altoona flavor

About 11 a.m. Tuesday, Ryan Matthew came by to survey the wreckage.

He’s an acoustical guitarist and singer, and for three years, he and another singer – the aptly named Travis Singer – performed on Friday nights at the restaurant.

“We used to pack the place,” Matthew said.

The staff was nice, the audience enjoyed the kind of camaraderie that came from knowing one another, and the room was the perfect size for acoustical music, he said.

It was the place local architect Judy Coutts chose for a celebratory meal for a large team that had just finished a big project, she said.

It was the place where Coutts took her “hard-to-please” relatives from New York City.

It was even a place where Coutts took her son trick-or-treating.

They’d hand out pizza – a longtime signature menu item – at the kitchen door.

“God bless them,” Coutts said. “That was so sweet.”

And it was a place to which people in her neighborhood could walk, which made it seem like “part of the family,” Coutts said. “That’s why it was so beloved.”

The hotel’s renown extended beyond the Knickerbocker neighborhood, Coutts agreed.

“But it starts with the neighborhood connection,” she said.

It was distinctively local, unlike chain restaurants, which are set up for auto access and are the same everywhere, Coutts said.

“Altoona Hotel WAS Altoona,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.