Rick Hollis puts a new core on a Tucker Sno-Cat radiator at L/A Radiator Works & Air Conditioning Specialists in Auburn. Hollis said that he builds many custom radiators for older cars and such. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

AUBURN — Rick Hollis and Ray Jalbert were working on a radiator in Hollis’ Main Street shop in Lewiston at about 9 a.m. that January morning when the adjacent hotel exploded, blowing out the hotel’s first floor, collapsing that building and leaving the roof of Hollis’ shop only partially held up by a car on a lift.

A natural gas explosion leveled Hollis’ radiator business in 2004. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“It knocked us over, everything turned black,” said Hollis, 63. “I grabbed Ray, ‘We’ve got to get out of here.'”

For the next 24 hours, everything burned.

“By the time that was done, either everything had been flooded, burnt, run over, squished, so there wasn’t much left in the end,” Hollis said.

If anything could have done in Lewiston Radiator Works, it was that January 2004 gas line explosion.

Hollis said he did not for a moment consider closing. The shop was back up in a week. The business his grandfather started in 1919 turned 100 this year.

He does, though, still think about that morning every day.

A natural gas explosion leveled Hollis’ radiator business in 2004. Rick Hollis and another worker were inside the business but made it out. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“We were lucky to escape,” Hollis said.

Hollis’ grandfather, Henry B. Hollis, escaped to the United States with his brother around 1919, Armenian immigrants who would lose their mother, father and sister to the Armenian genocide before they could make it over, too.

The brothers were both tinsmiths and both opened radiator shops. Henry had planned to open his in Bangor, Hollis said, but when the train he was riding stopped in Lewiston, he liked the look of the city.

Rick Hollis grew up on the floor above the shop, when it was on Lewiston’s Park Street, where Victors News is now.

“(My father) taught me how to put in the water pipes and do plumbing at a young age,” Hollis said.

He worked there throughout high school, and as graduation approached, his father, Henry Jr., “persuaded me, maybe I should stay and run the shop,” Hollis said. “I probably would have more fun working and not going to school. I don’t really look back on missing an opportunity.”

Lewiston Radiator Works has been in the Hollis family since 1919. Henry B. Hollis started the business on Middle Street, center picture, before the business was moved to Park Street, top picture. The shop then moved to Main Street in Lewiston before relocating to the current location on Riverside Drive in Auburn. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The business has gone through interesting cycles, he said.

“We did a lot of radiator repair work in the ’60s and ’70s,” Hollis said. “They were copper and brass and they were soldered together and over a while, corrosion would ruin them or vibration, and you would usually see in here around 50,000 miles or before. (Also), the older cars had an engine-driven fan. A lot of times, things would get into that fan, pick up sticks or something, and hit the radiator.”

Today, those fans are electric and better concealed, and radiators more often made from aluminum and plastic.

“A lot of them last 100,000 miles now, which was unheard of before, on new cars,” Hollis said.

Starting in the late 1950s through the mid-1980s, the shop did a lot of aftermarket work adding air conditioners to cars, he said.

As new models started to come with air conditioning as a standard feature, that business became less and less.

“Today, a majority of my work is restoring antique radiators that I do in the winter, but I also work on machinery and forklifts,” Hollis said. “I do a lot of cars — ’50s, ’60s, ’70s. It’s all things I did when I was young because I was doing them for new cars back then.”

The explosion in 2004 capped several rough years, Harris said. His wife was killed in a car accident in 2002. His father died in 2003.

Still, closing was not on the table. He worked for a year out of space his sister, Judy, and brother-in-law, Dennis Morgan, gave him in the back of their NAPA building on Center Street.

In 2005, his current spot opened up at 48 Riverside Dr. He tweaked the name slightly for the permanent move across the river, becoming L/A Radiator Works & Air Conditioning Specialists.

Two of Hollis’ five children have worked at the shop and moved onto other careers. He can see eventually closing the physical space and traveling with his craft, going to public works garages, gravel pits and lumber yards to work on heavy equipment where it sits.

Hollis said he loves that he and Jalbert, his employee for more than 25 years, are always diagnosing something or making a part fit.

“My problem is the challenge. I probably could have made a lot more money, but it’s the challenge,” he said. “Maybe it’s some vehicle that has a problem and it’s been around three or four places and we can figure out what’s going on.”


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