By Jeanne Sager
JEFFERSONVILLE February 12, 2002 The owners of the Lake Jefferson Hotel were planning on demolishing their building but a suspicious fire beat them to the punch.
On Thursday, Al Zecchine, speaking on behalf of the company which owns the hotel, told the Sullivan County Democrat that they were advertising for bids for the demolition after meetings with the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to ensure their plans would be approved.
But in a strange turn of events, less than 48 hours later, the building was gone burned down in the wee hours of Saturday morning.
Zecchine, a New York City resident with a second home in Roscoe, got a call early that morning that the building was on fire.
By the time he got to the scene from his Roscoe home, the building was gone.
It was pretty traumatic, he said. There was no electric to the building, no gas to the building.
There was not even a possibility of a natural occurrence.
The fire started early Saturday morning and took the building down within an hour despite the efforts of a number of local fire departments.
Jeffersonville, Youngsville, Hortonville, Callicoon, Kenoza Lake, Liberty and White Sulphur Springs volunteer fire departments were all on the scene.
Livingston Manor and North Branch fire departments remained on stand-by as their colleagues battled the blaze.
According to Fire Investigator Steve Johnstone, who has been looking into the incident with Investigator Tom Dempsey, the cause of the fire will remain undetermined.
It seemed suspicious to us, he said. But theres nothing left to go on.
The fire, which started in the rear of the building, near the lake, destroyed any evidence of the cause.
It just went up so fast there wasnt anything they could do, he said.
Because the company only had liability insurance on the building in case someone was hurt on the property, they will not need a report from the investigators to make a claim.
The investigation has been closed with no cause determined.
But after a rash of recent break-ins at the vacant hotel, Zecchine is sure the incident was arson.
We are pretty sure we know who did it, he noted.
The article published in Fridays edition of the Sullivan County Democrat announcing that the building would be demolished this year may have precipitated the fire, Zecchine postulated.
In the past few weeks, vandals have kicked in doors and windows and stolen wooden doors that the company hoped to save from demolition and use in the new building that is expected to be erected on the site later this year.
No Trespassing signs were posted on trees around the property, including those facing the lake behind the hotel, which Zecchine suspects vandals were crossing on ATVs because of tracks left behind by those who broke into the building.
It was always a concern because you have this big, empty building, Zecchine explained.
But they didnt imagine someone would go this far. And though the company was seeking bids to demolish the hotel, there were a number of items inside that they hoped to save.
An antique Coca-Cola machine, the original sign for the Lake Jefferson Hotel and wood molding which Zecchine hoped could be restored and put in the new building are all gone now.
The bar from the 1939 Worlds Fair, one of the many artifacts in the 1920s hotel, was saved, however. It had already been removed from the building.
Over the last month, Zecchine and other people planning the demolition have spent thousands of dollars and had several meetings with the DEC, Department of Transportation and other agencies to ensure that they could take the building down right.
This only casts a bad light on the project and on me, Zecchine said. We wasted a month, and I was trying to do this the right way.
Theres a lot of attachment to this building; its been here since the 1920s.
Zecchine and the company he represents intend to go on with their project, despite the fire.
A new building will go up on the site, and though Zecchine has yet to announce what will be inside, the new business will be family and values-oriented, he said.