LOVELL — The Lovell Village's General Store that burned Saturday was once the hub of the community.
"It was the center of village life," Lovell Historical Society member Catherine Stone said. "Some might argue it was the center of life in Lovell."
Four days after an early-morning fire erupted in the nearly 200-year-old structure at the corner of Route 5 and 93 during a record-setting blizzard, firefighters and residents were still talking about the loss.
The Lovell Village's General Store, also known as the Stearns, Hall & Walker Building, was engulfed in flames when some 60 firefighters from five surrounding towns kept the flames from taking down other nearby structures, including the town library, the brick church and other historic structures.
"All the volunteers did a tremendous job. That's something that should be highlighted," said Stanley Tupaj, owner of Kezar Realty, one of the five owners of the building.
The fire was so hot that letters in the signboard at the Charlotte Hobbs Memorial Library across the street melted, the utility pole in front of the building burned, embers were found nearly a quarter of a mile away on doorsteps, and the windows in a house directly behind the store blew apart in the heat.
"I woke up to a pop, pop," said Bond MacGillivray who lived in the home directly behind the business block.
Because the fire was at the front of the building, MacGillivray said he did not see it initially and thought he had simply lost power. It took only moments to realize there was a fire. He called 911 and raced out of his house with skis in his hands toward the blazing inferno. He jumped into his Winnebago camper that by that time was ablaze and tried to throw things out the back door.
The art center within the burning building was his storage facility where his mother's antiques and other art pieces were housed. It was all lost, he said.
Fire Chief Tom McKenzie said Tuesday night that the cause will never be known because the damage was so extensive. He said state Fire Marshal Dan Young signed off on the investigation.
McKenzie said Sunday that one of the empty business spaces was being renovated and an LP gas heater there was a suspected cause. The fire was discovered by a neighbor plowing a driveway, he said.
He estimated the loss of the 100- by 45-foot building at $350,000.
MacGillivray said there was a spirit to the building. It had beautiful Masonic carvings and arched vault ceilings.
"It was a spiritual place," he said.
The 1838 building is a major loss in more ways than one, said Edward Nista of New Suncook Real Estate in Lovell and a member of the Planning Board that instituted the village office condominium zoning back in the mid-1980s.
"I think it's a cultural loss. Certainly for the businesses it was a loss,” he said.
Nista, who later served on the Zoning Board, said the 2½-story wood-framed building was converted in the late 1980s into five business condominiums.
According to Lovell town records, the current owners in addition to Tupaj, are Nathan and Heather Goff of Scarborough, Stephen and Martha Goldsmith of Lovell, Ian Austin of Missouri and Samuel Nesbitt Jr. of Fryeburg, an attorney whose office was in the building. Martha Goldsmith operated her popular quilting business on the first floor, bringing scores of people into the building.
"It was really a focal point of local gatherings," Tupaj said.
He said the building owners each had insurance on their condominium and as an association the building was insured. The insurance adjusters were at the site Tuesday and are expected to return Wednesday.
Tupaj said it is unclear what will happen next. Under state law, the association is allowed to rebuild on the same footprint even though the setbacks, size and other issues may conflict with Lovell's current zoning requirements. But the owners must start to rebuild within a year.
Although there is some sentiment that the association may rebuild, the decision had not yet been made. Meanwhile, Tupaj said the community has been generous with offers of housing for their businesses.
He said he would like to see the a new building on the site.
"Oh absolutely," he said of the building that was built in three connected structures. The loss to the businesses is severe, he said, but the real loss is to the town.
"Old-timers would come in and talk to me about what that building meant to them growing up. It was more than just a store," he said of the Lovell Village's General Store.