20 years ago: Act of vengeance at Lewiston landmark [Lewiston Tribune, Idaho :: ]
(Lewiston Morning Tribune (ID) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 30--The suspicion started 20 years ago, as Jenelle Tweedy stared at one blackened hole amid a pile of smoldering destruction.
"It was really hot and charred there," Tweedy said of the brick around her father's office window in the remains of the Weisgerber Building. "I got to thinking, if it was arson, they had to have started it right there in front of that door of his. It was peculiar."
Tweedy's hunch was right. According to Lewiston police, someone entered the Fifth and Main landmark in the early morning of March 1, 1994, took a short flight of stairs to Delbert Smith's Sonotone Hearing Aid office, and set it ablaze.
About a year after the fire, Sgt. Alan Johnson said two or three Lewiston teens probably started it as an act of revenge against one of the businesses in the Weisgerber. But no one was ever charged, and Johnson only recently revealed that an investigation concluded the arsonists entered on Fifth Street, used an accelerant, and targeted Smith because of some kind of disagreement.
"I think the intention was to cause problems for the hearing aid office, and things got out of hand," said Johnson, who is now the city's code enforcement officer. "Once (the fire) got going into the structure, it was pretty much over with."
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The teens who may have set the fire succeeded mightily if they wanted to exact some form of twisted retribution against Smith. He was already heartbroken over the loss of his wife, Andree, to cancer in 1990, and Tweedy said the loss of his business stole his remaining will to live. He died six months later.
But the arsonists also succeeded at something equally tragic. The Weisgerber and the adjoining Beehive-Beach Building housed several apartments and 32 small businesses and organizations, drawing countless people to the downtown commercial district. Their sudden absence was like tearing a vital organ from a downtown desperately in need of the lifeblood that pumped through their corridors.
"It was just a good, old place," said Kathy Owen, whose Hair Affair salon was in the Beehive for 20 years. "Friday and Saturday, there were tons of people downtown. And of course you know everybody downtown. It was kind of a family thing. It's way different now."
Owen, who turns 63 today, said the fire was devastating. In addition to losing her place of business, she lost her collection of autographs from celebrities like Charles Bronson, Richard Chamberlain and Ricky Nelson, who would come to her for haircuts when they were in Lewiston for business or recreation. She also lost some of her seasonal flair.
"I'd just put up all my St. Patrick's Day decorations," Owen said. "It's my favorite holiday, and they all burned up."
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Twenty years later, John Jabbora is still steamed over the fire and its fallout. The owner of CLW Computers with his wife, Rheandra, Jabbora had just bought the business from her parents a couple of months earlier.
"You wake up one morning to the radio, and it's saying Fifth and Main is on fire, and the building is falling into itself," said Jabbora, who lived on Dustan Loop in Clarkston at the time and came barreling down 15th Street and Bridge Street. "Once I got there, everything was engulfed and gone. And then you find out the insurance company hoses you too for under-covering you, even though they say you've got coverage. I'll never be happy about that."
Jabbora has his own theories about why police never filed charges in the arson, claiming that the suspects were the children of "prominent figures" in town.
"They were hauled out of town right away and they couldn't get touched," he said. "It all got shoved under the table. How do you think this valley runs? It's still a good-old-boys club, and will be for a very long time."
In 1995, Johnson said the tip about the teens starting the fire came from a young man in an Elko, Nev., jail, who claimed to know who was involved.
Jabbora, 51, wasn't able to restart CLW, and ended up working for another computer retailer for five years. He moved on to Tri-State Memorial Hospital for 10 years, and is now the information technology administrator at the Clearwater River Casino.
"I was done with retail after (the fire)."
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Workers for Spokane builder Charles Jasper and Lewiston plumber Charles Hahn finished erecting the four-story Weisgerber Building in 1905, and handed it over to Christe Weisgerber of the C. Weisgerber Brewery. It cost $65,000 to build (about $1.7 million today), had 450,000 red bricks, a Vermont marble entrance, oak stairways, steam heat, electric and gas lighting and telephone service.
It was designed by famed Spokane architect Kirtland Cutter, and was one of three downtown Lewiston office buildings completed by the Weisgerber family. When it burned, the handsome building was replaced by an ugly crater that languished while one redevelopment prospect after another fizzled.
Finally, in 2006, Spokane developer ConoverBond built the $5.2 million Clearwater Hall on the site as a private residence for students at Lewis-Clark State College. Clearwater Hall incorporated the neighboring Adams Building, which survived the 1994 blaze because of a fire wall.
But ConoverBond was never able to find tenants for the development's ground-floor retail space, and became disillusioned with its foray into Lewiston. It sold Clearwater Hall to the college in 2009 for $4.5 million. The college also had trouble filling the retail space. In 2011, it abandoned efforts to find tenants and moved its Adult Learning Center into the Adams Building ground floor space in 2012 after an extensive remodel.
Now Chet Herbst, LCSC's financial vice president, said the college is planning to build out the remaining ground-floor space in the new portion of Clearwater Hall. It recently submitted the project to the state Permanent Building Fund as its No. 1 alteration and repair proposal for fiscal year 2015.
"I'm very confident that the project will be approved and will move forward," Herbst said. It's budgeted at $425,000, with $100,000 coming from LCSC and the rest from the state.
The spaces could be used for operations like the Small Business Development Center and provide additional classroom, meeting and gallery space close to the LCSC Center for Arts & History and the new Lewiston City Library, he said. And the residence hall side of the operation is healthy, with occupancy of more than 90 percent.
"We're delighted about the usage rate, which significantly exceeds our minimum revenue estimates back when we purchased the property," Herbst said. "It's definitely carrying its weight financially."
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It came as a shock to Tweedy that someone would so maliciously attack her 78-year-old father's place of business. But after pondering the scenario for a few minutes, she said it all made sense.
"Even when mom was alive, she'd say, 'Oh, they're such a nuisance,' " referring to the aimless youths who would kill time in the Weisgerber, riding the elevators, running the halls and raising hell. "They'd just be very disrespectful to people in business up there. Maybe my dad got tired of having these thugs coming and going, and maybe he said something. You know how older people can get fed up."
And any confrontation could have been more volatile because of Smith's own near-deafness. Tweedy said he lived with the disability his whole life, but never took assistance and lived a proud yet modest life of love and happiness with his family in a small Clarkston home.
"It makes me really sad, because of how hard he worked his whole life," she said. "And they wanted to ruin his world."
Tweedy, 54, attributed the whole, tragic mess to the disintegration of the family unit and a focus on things that don't really matter, like material goods.
"Kids don't have the resources and direction of having two people guide them," she said plaintively. "It doesn't take a lot of money. It just takes a lot of love and a lot of caring about what they're doing in life. They have so much potential."
And whatever might be the opposite of potential was painfully illustrated the day the Weisgerber burned, allegedly at the hands of wayward youths.
Mills may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 848-2266.
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