LINCOLN, R.I. — A public meeting house that was built by the Lonsdale Company in 1869, which was part of one of the most diverse collections of mill buildings in the state, was destroyed by a four-alarm fire Thursday night.
The long, three-and-a-half-story brick building that since 2003 has housed Knock On Wood Furniture was demolished on Friday evening.
“It’s certainly a tragic loss because it was a historic building,” Lincoln town administrator Philip Gould told the Globe. “That particular area has a lot of history from the turn of the 20th century. A lot of textile going on. You hate to see any of your history get ruined or erased from the pages of history.”
While the building is worthy of remembrance, Gould said the gutted structure had to be torn down immediately because it was a safety issue, located next to one of the busiest commuter avenues in town, State Road 122/Lonsdale Avenue.
“It created an inconvenience for a lot of people,” Gould said. “It’s a well-traveled road. We tried to get the message out as quickly as we could. We’ll hopefully have it open by tomorrow (Saturday) morning.”
A commercial fire alarm notified dispatchers of a possible fire around 11:30 p.m. Thursday, and firefighters arrived within four minutes. The first team at the scene entered the basement, where they found heavy flames and smoke. Firefighters aggressively attacked the blaze for 10 minutes before it spread to the first floor where the store was located.
Due to the age of the building, heavy timber construction, and poor access, the firefighters withdrew. Ladder trucks sprayed the building in a defensive attack that is used to prevent the fire from spreading to nearby structures.
Fisher said the basement was used for production and finishing for the business, and the first and second floor had furniture in them. The third and fourth floors were largely open spaces.
“Kudos to our Fire Department and first responders for doing what it could,” Gould said. “It’s an old building with wood furniture; it’s a tinderbox.”
More than 50 firefighters responded. Fisher said there was no one inside the building at the time of the fire and there are no residences inside.
The property is owned by a father and son, Michael and Nathan Gordon. KOW Properties LLC purchased the building in 2001 for $325,000 from Alfred and Helen Pine, according to property records. The sale said the building was built in 1890 but state historic documents show it has been inside the boundaries of the Lonsdale Historic District since 1869.
The store was open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday.
Fisher said a gas line runs to the building, which at one time used oil heat. The Lincoln Fire Department and Rhode Island State Fire Marshal are investigating the cause of the fire.
Fisher, who is a longtime Lincoln resident, called the loss of the mill building “unfortunate.”
“It’s what part of the character of the town is,” he said. “So it is a little disheartening to see it burn down.”
According to a National Register of Historic Places inventory form, the Lonsdale Hall with a gable roof and windows set under segmental arches between brick piers was modified with large plate glass windows and stucco covering. It was built to be a community meeting space and a commercial center for the mill. It housed the local library, club rooms, and a meeting hall on the upper floors; small shops occupied the first floor. And in 1888 there was a drug store, a goods store, and a bakery, the form said. The warehouse was 20,646 square feet.
Knock On Wood is located next to the Christ Episcopal Church, which burned down in 1883, and was rebuilt by the Lonsdale Company on the same location in 1884. It is renowned for its stunning stained glass windows. The property is surrounded by residential homes.
“The scary thing with any of these old mill buildings is that the old wood is seasoned, it might have oil that got absorbed over the years,” said Gould. “If it goes up it goes up. A lot was built pre-fire codes we have now.”
Gould, a former Lincoln police captain who was elected town administrator in 2021, went to Knock On Wood to buy the armoire that now sits in his office, he said.
Tina Chalmers, 53, has lived in the Lonsdale Historic District neighborhood for most of her life. She said neighbors are closely tied to the community’s history.
When Chalmers first heard the sound of fire trucks, she thought it could be a car accident. The intersection of State Road 122 and John Street has frequent crashes, she said.
“I started hearing more and more fire trucks and I thought, ‘what is going on?’” Chalmers said in an interview. “I looked out my back window and then I saw all the smoke. I saw three or four ladder trucks with hoses trying to contain the fire.”
Firefighters who fought the blaze were fully masked “almost like they were in Hazmat suits,” Chalmers said.
She videotaped the roof collapse.
I spoke with Lonsdale Historic District resident Tina Chalmers, 53, who says her family has lived in the neighborhood since she was about two years old. An avid history "nerd," Chalmers was saddened by the fire a block away. She videotaped the roof collapse. pic.twitter.com/n2mBTBrXOV— Carlos R. Munoz 📰 (@ReadCarlos) December 2, 2022
“It was really sad. I’m a little attached to the history of this area because this building was originally built along with that church and many of these buildings here were all part of the same factory,” Chalmers says.
Chalmers believes that the buildings were part of the second factory that was built in America after the Slater Mill. Her family has lived at their home on Lonsdale Main Street for the past 50 years, since Chalmers was about 2 years old.
She said another part of the mill nearby burned down on Halloween a few years ago.
In 2013, the Lonsdale Bleachery Mill on Carrington Street near Lonsdale Avenue was also engulfed in fire. The fire at the 150,000-square-foot building was captured in a video by a passerby.
This article has been updated with additional information about the demolition.