GROTON - As he watched flames lick the window panes of the 333-year-old inn, Paul Henry Bachteler felt like a piece of history was burning.
Until the Groton Inn was destroyed by fire Tuesday night, the rambling two-story building in the hub of this sleepy town played host to history: Ulysses S. Grant is said to have dined there, Eleanor Roosevelt slept upstairs, and Revolutionary War Minutemen paced the tavern’s uneven wood floors.
“Seeing that just breaks your heart,’’ Bachteler, who lives in the inn, said yesterday as he watched firefighters with shovels pick through the smoldering remains. “The inn wasn’t just my home. It was this town.’’
No one was hurt, but after battling the blaze for more than five hours, firefighters declared the once-majestic building a total loss. What’s left of the National Register of Historic Places landmark will probably be demolished. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
“We are investigating every option right now,’’ said Joseph Bosselait, Groton fire chief. That includes mechanical failures and lightning strikes from storms that moved through Massachusetts on Tuesday.
Once fire crews clear the burned area, which was once the dining room and part of the bar, investigators for the Groton Fire Department and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives will examine burn patterns and search for the fire’s center. ATF is involved because the case involves a total loss and a historic place, both triggers for more investigation, Bosselait said. He declined to comment on whether the fire seemed suspicious. Insurance investigators were expected to begin work this morning.
The rambling white building with the wraparound porch was once Groton’s crown jewel, residents said: not only a Christmas party location or a classy place to grab a cocktail, but the town’s defining landmark in a string of historic buildings along Groton’s Main Street.
“You don’t even have to look at the inn as you drive by to know it’s there,’’ said Alvin Collins, the head of the Groton Historical Commission. He arrived with a team and a tape measure yesterday to measure and record every dimension of the building, should owner George Pergantis, 81, choose to rebuild. “You sense its presence.’’
The slow march of New England historic buildings disappearing seems like a cloth unraveling, Collins said. Even if Pergantis rebuilds the inn to its original dimensions, the history is mostly gone.
The inn’s history is a tangle of verifiable history and town lore. A sign outside the property boasts the inn opened in 1678, a date tied to the oldest piece of a sprawling building cobbled together from three or more houses and businesses. The property has had dozens of owners and residents over 333 years, and existed under a host of names. Right now, the official name is The Old Groton Inn Tavern & Grill.
Paul Revere and presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, and William H. Taft have stayed there, according to town lore, but that’s almost impossible verify without better records from those eras, said John Ott, head of the Groton Historical Society. Registries from the early 1800s, when the stagecoach was king and Groton was the first night’s stay on trips north from Boston, show a large number of military families moving through.
As a student at neighboring Lawrence Academy, Collins with his roommates searched for an alleged Underground Railroad tunnel connecting the inn and the school. Other residents say they sensed history - and sometimes ghosts - in the low-ceilinged rooms: doors slamming, a little girl wandering through the dining room, water glasses mysteriously stacked in pyramids.
The Groton Inn contains 18 bedrooms and an apartment, where Bachteler lives, plus a handful of outbuildings that house five to six more groups of tenants. When Bachteler’s fire alarm went off around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, he walked outside to see a cloud of grey smoke hovering above the inn’s roof. He ran inside to grab his cellphone, his fingers trembling so much he misdialed and called 3-911.
As firetrucks arrived, Bachteler stood in the parking lot with owner Pergantis, who cried as he watched a 50-foot fireball devour the property he had spent 35 years restoring from ruins. He bought the property for $149,000, he said; Groton’s assessor now values the property at $1.9 million. “I made it beautiful again,’’ Pergantis said yesterday as he looked at the wreckage. “It was a dump, and I made it beautiful again.’’
Longtime town residents remember when Pergantis bought the property at auction in 1977 and restored it himself, building beds and laying floors. Ott and others took issue with the way Pergantis, a Greek immigrant, ran the property, saying bright paint, Greek food, and Calypso dance nights in a New England tavern created an atmosphere that wasn’t historically accurate.
“I don’t think he ever really understood what a New England tavern is all about,’’ Ott said.
In recent years, the inn’s restaurant had competition from a steakhouse that opened in 2004 in a historic barn nearby, drawing business from what had been one of the only places in town for a nice night out, Collins said. A local man assumed operations of the tavern’s restaurant in the last few years, and backed by a group of investors, tried to buy the property, Ott said. That deal fell through about eight months ago, Ott, Pergantis, and Pergantis’s son said.
Locals who gathered on Main Street to look at the burned building and snap photos remembered it fondly: a regular Friday night dinner location, the location of a club meeting, or, for Melissa Hutchinson, the restaurant where she and her husband celebrated their first Valentine’s Day as a married couple.
“It was so homey,’’ Hutchinson said, adding she used to play cribbage there and have drinks at the dark wood bar. “I’m so sad to see it go - it’s a part of town history, and our family history, too.’’