Reilly's Restaurant, 2392 Whitney Avenue Friday, December 25, 1964
Originally published here 12/25/09 - Revised and republished 12/26/14
As firefighters were advancing their first lines into the building. (Photo by John Mongillo, Jr.)
Friday, December 25, 1964 was not going to be a white Christmas. There was no doubt about that. The weather was more like a mid-April Easter. By mid-morning, temperatures in southern Connecticut were in the 60s. And despite the very un-Christmas-like weather, everyone was hoping that the Christmas of 1964 would foster much fonder yuletide memories than those of the previous Christmas, which had arrived only five weeks after a shocking national tragedy.
Hamden Fire Department line personnel were still on a 56-hour workweek, working four 14-hour nights followed by two days off, then four 10-hour days and two days off.
After an uneventful Christmas Eve night shift, the personnel of the old 1st Platoon had finished their fourth night and were on their way home for two full days off with their families. It was to be Firefighter Tom Doherty’s first Christmas Day away from the firehouse since joining the department nearly four years earlier.
The old 3rd Platoon, commanded by Deputy Chief James Strain, was starting its third day. Firefighter Dick Carney was assigned to Engine 4 at Headquarters. Dick recalls that every Christmas restaurant owner Charles “Chester” Reilly would drive to his establishment at the corner of Whitney Avenue and School Street to prepare an urn of coffee for the guys at Headquarters, only two doors away.
In a recent phone conversation, Dick related that shortly after the 8 a.m. roll call on Christmas morning, he and another fireman from Headquarters walked over to Reilly’s, but Mr. Reilly had not yet arrived. The two returned there around 10, but still no one was there.
According to Francis "Bud" O'Connor's account of the fire in The Hamden Chronicle the following week (below), Mr. Reilly was delayed because he decided to take his time and shave before heading out that morning from his Paramount Avenue home.
Ladder One Arrives (Photo by Stuart Langer)
According to other news accounts, shortly after 10:40 that morning John Mongillo, Jr. was walking up School Street toward Whitney from his home on Washington Avenue. Mongillo’s father was a well-known news photographer in the New Haven area and the younger Mongillo was himself a budding free-lance photographer. As he neared Whitney Avenue, Mongillo, Jr. saw smoke coming from Reilly’s.
Hamden patrolmen walked beats in Whitneyville, Highwood, the "Bank Section," Spring Glen and Centerville. Mongillo got the attention of the Centerville beat cop, Patrolman Ron Durkin, who reported the fire. At 10:44, Engine 4, Engine 5, Rescue 2, Ladder One and Car 30 were dispatched on a report of smoke coming from Reilly’s Restaurant.
Mongillo lived only a short distance away. After alerting Patrolman Durkin, he was able to return with his 16mm movie camera just in time to film Engine 4 and Rescue 2 exiting Headquarters. During the next couple hours, the younger Mongillo would capture several minutes of exciting action footage and many still photos of the blaze.
Dick Carney recalled that when Engine 4 arrived at the scene only a few feet from Headquarters, thick smoke was coming out of the front dormer.
Responding south on Whitney, Engine 5's 1951 Maxim 750 wrapped the hydrant in front of the Atlantic-Richfield gas station on the northeast corner of School Street where 2405 Whitney stands today. Engine 5 then pulled west into School Street by the fire building to leave room for the ladder truck in front. Engine 4's 1954 Maxim 750 hooked up big to the hydrant and pumped Engine 5's supply line.
Firefighter Richie Lostritto, was assigned to Ladder One out of Station 2 with Firefighter Harry Cubbellotti, who was driving. Richie would later serve at the department's Superintendent of Alarms and Apparatus. He recalled that when he and Harry got to the top of Mix Avenue they could see lots of black smoke rising in the distance. “Well, I guess we can forget about Christmas dinner,” said Richie.
Harry recalled the day vividly when interviewed in 2009. “It was such a warm day, I decided to wash my car,” he chuckled. “I was in the middle of washing it when the bell hit.” On arrival at the fire scene, he and Lostritto were ordered to prepare the ladder pipe for operation and then raise the aerial ladder.
Photo by Bill Keeley
Within minutes it became obvious that more help was needed. Shift commander Deputy Chief Strain called for a second alarm, which brought Engine 2, Engine 3, Rescue 1, and Volunteer Co. 7. Fire Chief V. Paul Leddy was summoned while attending Christmas Mass at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church.
At his home in West Woods, Tom Doherty had just taken a seat in his easy chair. He put up his feet to enjoy his first Christmas morning at home since becoming a firefighter four years earlier. Tom recalled that he had just poured himself a shot of whisky for a Christmas toast. Before he had the chance to raise his glass the phone rang. It was an off-duty firefighter – we’ll call him “Bill” – phoning from Headquarters.
“Tom, you have to come back to work. Reilly’s is on fire and the Chief is ordering everyone in.” The call had to be a prank, thought Tom. (Firemen playing pranks on each other? Imagine that!) Laughing it off, Tom did his best to get “Bill” to admit that the call was a Christmas morning practical joke. Nothing worked. Bill insisted that Reilly’s WAS on fire.
"Okay," Tom agreed, "I'm coming back to work. But if Reilly’s is NOT on fire," Tom warned Bill, "YOU are getting a fat lip!"
Rear kitchen addition - south side (Photo by Gorlick)
Same viewpoint. The man in the white helmet with "NHFD / C" on his bunker coat may be a chaplain, perhaps from a neighboring community. (Photo by Gorlick)
With Engine 4's pump operator tied up at the hydrant, Dick Carney said that he and other Engine 4 personnel spent a lot of time on the roof. The original wood-frame portion of the building, erected in 1913, had a hip roof. A 1957 kitchen addition of concrete and block had a flat roof. Access to the rear roof had to be made with ground ladders.
Eddy Doiron recalls that he was placed in the Public Works bucket truck on School Street with an inch and a half line pumped from Engine 5.
Entry to the second floor was made from a fire escape on the south side of the building.
Ed Doiron in P.W. bucket truck, pressed into service on School Street (Photo by Stuart Langer)
Mt. Carmel Co. 5 volunteer Don Steele and his son, Tim, responded from their home on Mt. Carmel Avenue. Don wrote the following notation in his logbook: “Tim and I were on 2 ½” w/ [volunteers] Howie Quimby and Jim Mathis for quite a while. Then Tim + Jim and I on fire escape. First with 2½” then 1½.”
Steele's final logbook notation regarding the Christmas Day fire at Reilly’s: “Total time over five hours.” However, most of the on-duty paid personnel remained there throughout the day until relieved by the night shift.
It was not a very good Christmas after all, especially for the Reilly family. One thirteen year-old by-stander watched the fire with his two brothers from in front of Harry's Barber Shop on the southeast corner of Whitney and School. He recently recalled that Mr. Reilly appeared sad and lost as he watched his restaurant go up in flames. Other accounts, however, suggest that Mr. Reilly handled this immense personal loss with his customary good humor. "If you see my son, George," he is said to have told a friend as the blaze was destroying his business, "tell him he can take tomorrow off."
Reilly’s Restaurant was rebuilt and was back in business before Christmas of 1965. It continued to be an immensely popular Hamden restaurant for more than 25 years thereafter.
Reilly's closed in 1991. Another popular local dining spot, Eli’s-On-Whitney, took over the building a short time later and has been there ever since.
For a detailed account of the Reilly’s Restaurant fire, scroll down to a transcription of an article written for the December 30, 1964 edition of The Hamden Chronicle, by editor Francis “Bud” O’Connor.
[Website Note: In February 1965, the Board of Fire Commissioners voted unanimously to purchase a copy of John Mongillo Jr's excellent black and white 16mm news footage of the Reilly's fire, along with footage of the Weather Vane fire shot earlier in December. Color 16mm news footage of the January 1968 Fleming Company fire was added to the reel several years later. Dep. Chief Training Officer Ken Harrington showed the film of the three fires numerous times during training sessions until at least the late 1970s. Regrettably, it appears that the film has been lost.]
The author wishes to thank and acknowledge Ff. Richard Carney, Ff. Harry Cubbellotti, B/C Tom Doherty, Ff. Ed Doiron, Supt. Richard Lostritto and Vol. Ff. G. Donald Steele for their assistance in the preparation of the original 2009 article and the 2014 update.
Spectators gathered on this unseasonably warm Christmas Day to watch a very popular local landmark go up. (Photo by John Mongillo, Jr.)
"Then with crisp impact, the liquor supply in the barroom exploded. All four large front windows shattered to the sidewalk and a sheet of flame, the width of the building, leapt out, fingered an overhanging roof, then flickered upward, scorching the front of the aluminum-sided structure." - Francis "Bud" O'Connor, Editor, The Hamden Chronicle (12/30/64)
The fellow in the foreground looks like Bucky Serafino. (Photo by Ed Doiron)
Firefighters Richie Lostritto and Harry Cubbellotti were on Ladder One that day. (Photo by John Mongillo, Jr.)
Engine 2 Arrives on 2nd Alarm (Photo by John Mongillo, Jr.)
Photo by Bill Keeley
Dep. Chief Strain and Lt. George Reutenauer (Photo by Bill Keeley)
This photo was shot from in front of the Brown Stone House. Curbside parking was still in effect on this part of Whitney until the early 1970s. (Photo by John Mongillo, Jr.)
Deputy Chief's 1961 Ford can been seen in the driveway of Headquarters. Notice several other cars when on-street parking was permitted on Whitney Avenue in those days. (Photo by John Mongillo, Jr.)
Within a year the fire damaged building was torn down and replaced with a new building. Reilly's closed in 1991. Eli's-on-Whitney, another popular Hamden restaurant, now occupies the building.
Fifty years later, the only two structures that remain from the above photo are the building on the northwest corner of Whitney and School (formerly Bimonte's Pizza) and the one next door. Two houses north of those buildings were razed in 1968 to make way for the Jefferson Arms Apartments and a bakery that is now gone. Two medical office buildings were added in the 80s and 90s. In 2013, the one hundred year old building in the foreground between Reilly's and Station 4 was razed to make way for an annex to Eli's, which can be seen in the photo below taken on Christmas Day 2014.
December 25, 2014 - Same scene exactly 50 years later
Investigation (Photo by John Mongillo, Jr.)
Below are images from the original Reilly's article,
first published here in December 2009.
December 24, 2009, 10:30 a.m. - Except for the new building that replaced the one destroyed by fire, the view 45 years later is nearly the same. But there will be significant changes in the near future, as the old building on the left will soon be demolished for the new police-fire complex at the old Town Hall.
In the distance at the right are the Jefferson Arms Apartments, built in 1969, and an office complex at 2440 Whitney Avenue that was built in the 1980s.
And this is the same scene in 1925, nearly 40 years before the fire at Reilly's. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Chorney)
From the same vantage point on 12/24/09. Even on a busy day, traffic in 1964 would have been a lot less congested than this. (If you parked your car at the curb here today, you'd probably be taken out and shot.)
Recruit firefighter Eddy Doiron directs the stream of an 1-1/2" line from the bucket of a Public Works truck that was pressed into service. (Photo by Stuart Langer)
Reilly's was back in business in their new building by Christmas Day of 1965. Reilly's closed in 1991 and now houses the equally popular Eli's on Whitney restaurant.