Just after midnight on February 17, 1987, the New Paltz Fire Department (NPFD) responded to what its members thought would be a routine call about a gas leak from a propane tank in the alleyway behind Chez Joey’s Pizzeria and Bacchus Restaurant on the corner of Main Street and South Chestnut.
“It was freezing out,” said Scott Woebse, then a member of the NPFD who responded to the original call reporting a terrible propane odor coming from the tank. The firefighters poured water on the tank and were there for several hours in subzero temperatures, until the leak and been fixed and they could head home. “I took a shower to warm up and had just laid my head down when another call came in about a fire in the basement of Chez Joey’s and Thesis.” According to Woebse, the fire in the basement blew out some of the windows of the businesses and triggered a burglar alarm, to which the New Paltz Police Department (NPPD) responded. “Mike Manpell [of the NPPD] arrived and saw the smoke pouring through the buildings and immediately started trying to alert everyone to get out of the building.”
The buildings, at 50 and 52 Main Street, were constructed in 1908 by Elting Harp of wood, brick and glass and materials that are highly combustible. “I had on my protective gear and thankfully grabbed an air pack off the truck, because the smoke was intense. You couldn’t see flames, mostly smoke,” said Woebse. He remembers a female tenant running out of the building on Main Street screaming, “He hasn’t come out yet, he hasn’t come out!” while pointing to an apartment on the third floor of the old building.
“At that point, our priority was search and rescue. We headed into the entrance on Main Street and I could not see my hand in front of my face, the smoke was so black and thick,” Woebse recalled. “We knew we couldn’t get up to the third floor; it would only get hotter.” He and fellow firefighters Greg Burton, John Kay and Heidi Maguire grabbed a 36-foot ground ladder and placed it on the sidewalk in front of Thesis, leaning it up against the third floor. “I went up first and busted the third-floor window,” he said. “Heidi manned the ladder and Greg was behind me.”
Once he was inside, Woebse was moving around the heat and the smoke, blinded. “I was doing sweeps with one hand on the wall and the other was hitting tables and chairs as I was trying to feel for a person,” he said. “It was the blackest black, and hot. But we’re trained to search in those conditions.”
Within less than a minute, a flashover occurred. Woebse heard that sound that an outdoor grill makes when you flick a match on it, but 100 times louder and more terrifying: “Wumph!” He explained that, although the fire started in the basement, the heat “rose to such a temperature that it just ignited everything inside and the entire ceiling went orange. I thought that was it.” He managed to make his way back to the window, where his partner, who had to duck when the flames burst out during the flashover, grabbed him and yanked him out.
There he was, dangling from the ladder, burned on his neck, ears, forehead and the backs of his hands as he and his partner tried to steady themselves and “not fall three floors onto the sidewalk.” He said that it was not only terrifying and painful, but also “the worst feeling. We thought for sure that there was someone trapped up there and there was nothing more we could do.”
After being taken to Vassar Brothers Hospital and treated for burns – along with several other emergency responders who were also injured, burned or suffered smoke inhalation – Woebse returned to the fire in the daylight and was told that all of the tenants in the eight apartments had escaped without harm. “I was so relieved.”
The buildings, however, were destroyed, leaving an entire corner of historic Main Street gutted, two businesses wiped out and 17 residents homeless. More than 200 firefighters from three counties worked through the night and the next day to put out the blaze, which required water to be pumped from the Wallkill River through a five-inch hose because the hydrants were either frozen or had gone dry.
The bottom of Main Street was either dripping in icicles or smoldering. The raw winter night gave way to an eerie day with the charred remains of the Thesis Bar still standing, including one overturned stool and melted glass bottles on the mostly disintegrated wall behind it. That image, along with the hanging neon signs advertising the bar and pizzeria coated in icicles, with firefighters aiming their hoses toward the towering smoke above the bottom of Main Street, is seared into many residents’ minds.
Newspaper reports of the day commend fire chief David Butler, who ordered his department to get the truck down to the river, as well as to dig a trench in the roof above 52 Main Street to save the neighboring buildings that were stacked up alongside each other, each one as old and flammable as the next. David’s Cookies stood across the street, and the Running Shoe was saved, next to Chez Joey’s. But the beloved Italian eatery and the popular student bar did not rise from the ashes.
John DeSimone said that he has a picture from the bank clock showing that it was -8 degrees that night. Woebse recalled Butler saying that he feared he “had lost me when that flashover hit,” as well as him using a stern voice to tell one of his drivers to “Get that truck to the river now. I don’t care if it gets stuck. We’re going to need more water!” So much water was used to try to put out the fire (which kept reigniting) that the Middle School had to be closed because it didn’t have any water to run the building.
According to various newspaper accounts, Butler had to explain that in his estimation, as well as the arson task force and the NPPD, the first leak was not the cause of the fire, but the second leak was. He said that the second leak came from a gas regulator that leaked vapors into the basement area where they eventually reached an ignition source: an oil-fired water heater nearby. The heater sparked a fire that quickly spread to the first and second floors of Thesis Bar and then through a 12-inch passageway under the floor between Thesis and Chez Joey.
“Those firefighters worked like crazy to save the rest of Main Street, which could have easily gone up in flames,” said Woebse, who served as a volunteer for the NPFD for over 11 years and then went on to become a paramedic for Mobile Life Services. “It was over 30 years ago, but I still remember it like it was yesterday.”
In the Historic New Paltz Facebook group, there are several posts by current or former residents who remember leaving the North Light bar and seeing the corner on fire, or waking up from an apartment above Hobo Deli across the street and seeing the smoke pouring out of the building. Others have photos that document the raw intensity of the scene that left firefighters exhausted, people homeless, business owners without their businesses the following day, patrons without the possibility of a Godfather or a “half” and nighttime revelers adrift in the absence of their favorite barstool and dance floor. It was a point in New Paltz’s history that people remember because it forever changed and marred the existing structural landscape and reshaped what we know as Main Street once again.
Jerry Nuzzo, along with his wife Fran, opened up their pizzeria in the Pappas building in 1958. “We were born into the restaurant business,” said Nuzzo when interviewed by Hudson Valley One as the 35th anniversary of the fire approached. His family had run Patsy’s in the Bronx, and when the young Italian couple moved to Modena, they continued to work in restaurants until they decided to open up their own. Chez Joey’s was located on the ground floor, long and narrow, with small tables and chairs on one side and the counter and ovens on the other. Customers would be lined up all the way to the back of the pizzeria, and you’d just hear Marie Greco, Nuzzo’s sister-in-law, say “Half or a whole?”
Students, businesspeople, rock climbers, bankers, tourists, travelers, shop-owners, professors and an entire cross-section of Paltzonians loved Chez Joey’s. “We knew what we were doing and the price was right!” said Jerry.
“When we opened up, our sandwiches were 50 cents,” said Fran. They used extra-long bread, 15 inches long, and “all fresh ingredients. I grew the lettuce and peppers and tomatoes in my garden,” said Jerry. “Everything had to be fresh.”
The couple agreed that their most popular sandwich was “The Godfather,” with provolone, salami, prosciutto, red peppers, lettuce, onion, tomatoes and their special oil-and-vinegar combo. “A pizza was $3 when we started,” added Fran. “But as time went on, prices went up. But we were always reasonable.” There was nothing fancy about Chez Joey’s – no chandeliers or bells and whistles, just fresh pizza, hot out of the oven, and overflowing sandwiches, hearty enough to feed a student for an entire day.
The couple, who still live in New Paltz, owned the business for decades, even after the fire, when they built the new building that stands today. Jerry remembers getting orders for delivery to the college, to Mohonk Mountain House and everywhere in between. “Ed and I had to be the ones to deliver to Mohonk. There were times they’d have an event and order 30 pies!” recalled Jerry. “We had students deliver to the University, because they knew all of the buildings and dorms.” He added that a lot of students frequented the pizzeria as well as rented apartments and lived above them. “We felt awful when they lost their home,” he said. “They were our friends.”
Nuzzo and Thesis owner Norman Feigenbaum can be seen in one picture, watching sadly on as the firefighters poured thousands of gallons of water over their buildings, hoping to quench the thirst of the blaze. “I’ll never forget that night. I had been called out for a gas leak after midnight, and then they called me again and I had to go back out in the wee hours of the night. It was cold and the building was blazing with fire. Those firefighters worked so hard.”
Suzanne DeSimone Hannigan said that she remembered the fire as well. “It was crazy cold,” she said. “I remember making dozens of sandwiches for the firefighters and worrying because it was such a huge blaze. It was also heartbreaking, because Jerry and Marie were such a constant in all of our lives growing up. They put their heart and soul into Chez Joey’s.”
Debora Perkins Lillie Tango said that she “worked behind the counter at Chez Joey’s in the early ‘70s, behind the counter with Sal, who cut the meat, Marie, Jerry’s sister, and Fran. I said I was the ‘everything’ girl because I’d be the one to ask if you wanted ‘everything’ on your sub!”
The building where Thesis once stood was one of the only structures on Main Street between Chestnut Street and Plattekill Avenue in the late 19th century. Constructed in 1890, the building housed Harp’s Harness Store, which sold and displayed and sold horse blankets, collars, harnesses, whips, racing goods, trunks, bags and homespun coverlets. A proud charter member of the Hook & Ladder Company and instrumental in its formation in 1889, Elting Harp was said to love the firemen’s parade and even reveled in making harnesses for his children’s pets so that they could festively join in the parades (New Paltz Independent, 1961).
Above the store was living quarters for Harp’s family, which eventually became offices for the New York Telephone Company, housing operated a large switchboard. Elting had a three-story brick building built by contractor Jesse Steen in 1908. It housed many engineers who were responsible for the creation of the New York Water Supply from the Catskill Aqueduct, and even included a fireproof safe for many of their invaluable maps and designs (New Paltz Independent, 1908) Soon after it was completed, Ira Steen opened up a bakery on the bottom floor, the eventual home of Chez Joey’s, which offered fresh breads, cakes, confections, ice cream and sodas (New Paltz Independent, 4/16/1909).
The building was eventually purchased and expanded by Charles Pappas, known in the papers at the time as “the Greek.” There were news reports of his embellishments to the building, included a brick top piece that read “1908, C. A. Pappas.” “Mr. Pappas, the Greek, who has rented the Elting Harp store on Main Street, is having it fitted up in such fine style that New Paltz people will open their eyes” (New Paltz Independent, 3/17/1916).
After the sweet shop, there was a hardware store run by Harry Kniffen, a US Post Office depot, the C&M Operating Company, Furniture Mart, Joe’s Submarine and then Chez Joey’s. The Harp Harness Store at 50 Main Street also went through various incarnations before the 1987 Thesis fire, including Olympic Ice Cream, a photo shop, United Cigar Store, Huguenot Bank, Whelan Drug Store, Adirondack Trailways bus station, Holiday Bakery, Spat’s Cocktails, Gruner Law Office and finally Thesis.
After the freezing February fire leveled both buildings, Nuzzo hired Joseph Hurwitz to design the current building, which spreads out over both lots. Chez Joey’s reopened in 1989 to great fanfare, but eventually Jerry and Fran retired and sold the business and subsequently the building. It has since been home to Italian Supreme, Fat Bob’s, Jordan’s Pizza and Pavese’s Pizza; its newest occupant is now Best Pizza. None have had the lasting power of Chez Joey’s, but the owners of Best Pizza are hoping they have the secret ingredient to bring the magic back to the corner that served as an iconic landmark in the village’s business district and hamlet for well over a hundred years.