April 09. 2013 7:48PM

UPDATED: Old Exeter Town Hall heavily damaged in morning fire

Union Leader Correspondent

The scene outside Exeter's old town hall this morning after a fire on the second floor damaged the building. (JASON SCHREIBER/UNION LEADER CORRESPONDENT)

Firefighters clean up at the scene of this morning's fire at the old Exeter town hall. (JASON SCHREIBER/UNION LEADER CORRESPONDENT)

EXETER— The old Exeter Town Hall was damaged by fire, smoke and water on Tuesday morning after a fire broke out on the second floor of the historic brick building where Abraham Lincoln once gave a speech.


The fire was reported just before 8:30 a.m. and was knocked down within 30 minutes by the nearly 50 firefighters from Exeter and other towns who responded to 9 Front St. building


Fire Chief Brian Comeau said firefighters found fire and thick smoke on the second floor, but the building’s sprinklers kept the fire from spreading and gave firefighters extra time to set up hose lines to attack the fire, Comeau said.


The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but Comeau said it’s not considered suspicious.


The town hall was built in 1855 and was once visited by Abraham Lincoln, who spoke to Republicans there during a visit to Exeter in 1860.


The building may be closed for at least the next two weeks, Town Manager Russ Dean said.


The fire was contained to a small area in a storage room on the second floor. The building is used mostly for storage and houses an art gallery on the second floor.


Community events are also held inside the building on occasion.


The only town department located in the building is the finance office housed on the lower level; other departments are located at the town office building across the street.


Doreen Ravell, the town’s finance director, was alone in the finance office when the fire began. She said she had been at work for about a half-hour when she heard smoke alarms going off.


Ravell said the phones weren’t working inside at the building at the time of the fire, so she used her cell phone to call 911 before leaving the building.


“I didn’t smell any smoke. The only thing that happened was the fire alarms went off,” she said.


Some town financial records may have been lost due to water damage in the office. Officials said the extent of the damage needs to be determined.


“We know that some records were water-damaged on the lower level, but we’re allowing them to dry out and then we’ll go through them,” Dean said.


Ravell and other office staff have been moved to the Exeter Town Office building across the street.


The fire also forced the Oyster River Players to begin scrambling to find a new venue for the group’s performance of “Romeo and Juliet.”


The nonprofit theater company planned performances at the building on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Troupe members arrived after the fire to check their costumes and other props for damage and move everything out.


Director Kelly Eggers wasn’t sure where the performances would be held, but said the group was seeking a new location.


Comeau said the bulk of the damage to the building resulted from water. He didn’t have an estimate on repair and clean-up costs.


At one point in the morning, Gov. Maggie Hassan, who lives in Exeter, stopped briefly at the scene and thanked firefighters for their efforts.


As the cleanup continued, Dean said the next step would be for Primex, the town’s insurer, to conduct a damage assessment.


He said there was significant water damage to the main floor ceiling and the lower level.


“We’ll be looking over the art gallery on the second floor as well where there was significant water adjacent to the room which had the fire,” he said.


Dean said this is the third time that sprinklers have spared the building of heavy damage. He said the late Fire Chief Haywood Stanley “lobbied hard” for the sprinklers to be installed.


“Because of the sprinkler system we’ve been fortunate. We’ve been able to hold these fires. The sprinkler system has held these fires enough so the firefighters can get into place, place their hose lines, and get ready to extinguish the fire themselves,” Comeau said.