Last week marked the 25th anniversary of a raging 1988 fire that displaced at least 27 people and took out four mid-Washington Street buildings. The fire began at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Feb 27, 1988 at (then) Massarky’s Hardware Store at 618-620 Washington St., and spread to neighboring buildings.
Then-Deputy Fire Chief Richard Tremitiedi said in news reports at the time that the department had not determined the cause of the blaze, but could not rule out arson.
The 1980s were a time during which “arson for profit” was said to be as rampant in Hoboken as the flames themselves. “Arson for profit” was defined as a situation in which businesses or individuals set fires to reduce financial loss, recoup initial investments, or dispose of depreciated assets, usually for a payout from insurance companies.
Many landlords in the 1980s were converting their buildings to condos. Some believed that a few of Hoboken’s fires were set to get rid of tenants who were enjoying rent control protections, so the owner could easily fix up or sell the building. In fact, 13 people died in fires in a three-week period in 1981.
“My mother and I were driving in from a friend’s house and we saw a huge plume of smoke from Garden Street.” – Eddie Drishti
The buildings today (616-622 Washington St.) are home to the Mikie Squared Bar and Grill, Matt and Meera, Townhouse No. 620, and Benny Tudino’s Pizzeria. Benny Tudino’s was at the same location when the fire occurred, while the other businesses didn’t exist yet.
The fire destroyed eight apartments and the three businesses, and injured one resident as well as the hardware store’s resident calico cat, Jackie.
According to the newspaper, then-Councilman (later Mayor) Dave Roberts reportedly announced on March 2 that he had found subsidized apartments in Hoboken for four displaced families.
Current businesses have no idea
The businesses in that location today were in the dark about the past fires.
The manager of Mikie Squared Bar and Grill at 616 Washington St., Laura Ferland, said, “Wow. I am shocked. I had absolutely no idea.”
Ferland has worked at Mikie Squared for nearly six years. Bartender Jimmy Walker had not heard of the fire either, despite his two and a half year employment.
Vanita, the manager of Matt and Meera, a restaurant that has been at 618 Washington St. for only six months, said she had no clue.
Lucci, one of the owners of Townhouse No. 620 at 620 Washington St., did know.
“I’ve been in business here since 2008,” he said. “I do some construction work as well and I noticed this was a newer building among many old buildings. We even had a new sprinkler system. Finally I asked why we had the newest building on the block and I believe Benny [Tudino] told me of the fire.”
Closed Benny Tudino’s for months
Benny Tudino’s has been in its 622 Washington location for over 45 years. Owner Benny Tudino said Wednesday he was not there the day of the fire, but remembers it. He thanked the Fire Department in Hoboken.
“[Hoboken Fire Department] worked hard and they saved [the business],” he said.
The Reporter article said, “The slice maestros who operated the hallowed pizzeria/community center were not optimistic about reopening soon, but they took jokes about overdone pies in good humor.”
According to Tudino’s son, Eddie Drishti, who was 18 at the time of the fire, reopening became a running joke. Drishti is a sergeant for the Hoboken Police Department.
“Every day, we’d say two weeks, two weeks,” he said. “Two weeks turned into five or six months.”
Drishti remembered everything down to the weather that day.
“It was wet and cold just like today,” he said. “My mother and I were driving in from a friend’s house and we saw a huge plume of smoke from Garden Street.”
That plume of smoke originated in the basement of the hardware store next door, 618-620 Washington.
Drishti and his father pointed to a black and white framed photo of the hardware store dated 1938. The photo is next to a more recent picture of Vice President Joe Biden handling a Tudino’s slice.
“There were rumors circulating over how that fire started,” Drishti said. “It left many things open to speculation and I guess the jury is still out.”
First day of new owners
According to the Reporter story from 1988, the fire happened right after the hardware store changed ownership. The day of the fire was the first day for the new owner/manager. Tremitiedi said in the newspaper that the new owner would have no motivation for arson because his property was underinsured.
The article said, “A source close to the sale said the property and business were sold for $750,000 a few weeks ago. The store’s inventory at the time of the transaction was valued at $160,000. [The new owner] secured $250,000 to close the transaction and agreed to pay off the remaining $500,000 over the next 12 years. [The old owner] still owed $180,000 in mortgage payments of his own, the source said, and still held insurance on the property. Another unidentified employee indicated Saturday was the first day [the new owner] was operating the business without [the old owner’s] assistance.”
Amanda Palasciano may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.