Berwick Hotel stood tall over downtown
By Gordon Dritschilo
Herald Staff | February 14,2007
FILE / RUTLAND HERALD
The Berwick Hotel burned down in 1973, leaving behind what is today a parking lot known as “The Pit.”
It was once one of the largest buildings in the city.
Thirty-four years ago it was the site of one of Rutland's most devastating fires, and ever since it has been a hole in the ground.
The Berwick Hotel was built in 1868 at the intersection of Center Street and Wales Street with two additions added later in the century. Five people died when it burned to the ground in 1973.
"It was called the Stevens House when it was first built," said James Davidson of the Rutland Historical Society. "Very shortly after that, I don't know why, it became the Berwick."
The building had become the Town House by the time of the fire, but it was still called the Berwick by most in town and is remembered by that name today.
"These things pretty much stick for people," Davidson said of the name. "It was one of the major hotels in Rutland, with the Bardwell and Bates House. Those three, there were other hotels, but those were the major downtown hotels."
The Bates House was destroyed in the Mead Building fire in 1906
"That leaves you, in the 20th century, the Berwick and the Bardwell," Davidson said. "They were both on an equal level. You probably would not find nicer."
The Berwick boasted a variety of distinguished guests, including presidents Coolidge, Taft and both Roosevelts as well as industrialists Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford, New York governor and presidential candidate Alfred Smith and composer John Philip Sousa.
The presidents gave speeches from the hotel's balcony. Groups like the Kiwanis and Rotary would meet there, and the hotel was an overnight stop on several automobile tours out of New York City early in the 20th century.
The building included a reproduction of a Flemish tavern and a dining room where patrons were served a menu of lamb, roast beef and duck served on silver platters. Davidson said the Berwick was larger than it looked from the outside.
"It was more than just the corner building," he said. "There was the building to the west and a couple to the back. It was a complex of buildings. They had dining rooms, a lounge."
Many people also remember the candy shop on one side of the building.
"There was a big window on the Wales Street side where people could watch them pulling taffy and making candy and doing all the neat things they did," Davidson said.
The hotel fell on hard times, with foreclosure proceedings brought against the owners in 1961. It was closed in 1963. New owners bought the building in 1971, and were in the middle of a $750,000 renovation effort early on the morning of Jan. 7, when the hotel burst into flames.
The call came in to the fire department shortly after midnight, and every doctor in the city was called to report to the hospital. A crowd of 1,500 gathered to watch. Five residents of the building were killed and 13 others, including five firefighters, were injured.
"It was about weather like this," Davidson said. "It was cold as all get-out that night. The fire department put water on it and it froze before it fell back to the ground."
Davidson said the entire city was left in shock.
"It was totally, totally unexpected. It was a good building," he said. "They were putting money into it, refurbishing. The shock was it was such a huge fire. You see the photos, it was completely in flames. Anyone who is a little bit older who would have been there — it was a huge fire."
Many people were heard the next day commenting that it looked like a bomb had hit Rutland.
"Nobody alive in Rutland at that time had seen anything like that," Davidson said. "This was a huge fire — well beyond anything the reporters or citizens or firemen had ever seen before."
The cause was never determined, though Alfred Koltonski, the city fire chief at the time, testified he believed it was set. Sixteen lawsuits were brought against the owners and settled out of court.
Shortly after the fire, the site became the parking pit it is known as today.
"As soon as they cleaned it all out of there, they had this hole in the ground," Davidson said. "They decided to grade it. The city leased it. It was better than just leaving it totally empty, especially with what the demand on parking was before the deck was built."
All the while, people in town have wondered what might replace the Berwick. Davidson said the most logical suggestion, to many, was to rebuild the hotel.
"In 1973, people weren't building hotels in downtowns," he said. "They were building motels like Holiday Inn and Ramada, and they were building them out on the highway. One of the things someone said downtown Rutland needs is a downtown hotel with a conference center and a restaurant. People who develop things have looked into that and decided it was not economically feasible."
Rumors about planned development at the pit pop up every few years, but Davison said he has not heard many serious proposals for development there.
"Everyone has said it's a prime piece of land," he said. "It wasn't a big enough lot to become a parking deck. You know where stores go now — they go in a shopping center."
Walking around downtown today, Davidson said he still feels the absence of the Berwick when he reaches the corner of Center and Wales.
"It's a missing piece," he said. "It's like somebody reached in and pulled it out. There's nothing there. Everyone, I would say, talks about why they don't do something about the pit, and by 'do something' they mean build something there. If you've got the dollars and you can make it work, be my guest."
Contact Gordon Dritschilo at firstname.lastname@example.org.