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Officials investigating fire at Berlin's Princess Theater

Special to the Union Leader

December 14. 2013 8:09PM

The Princess Theater in downtown Berlin was destroyed by fire Friday night and Saturday morning. Firefighters battled for seven hours against wind chills of minus-35 degrees and freezing water that left the century-old structure encased in ice. (PHOTO BERLIN FIRE DEPARTMENT)

BERLIN - A century after it opened its doors in 1914, the historic Princess Theater in the downtown was destroyed by fire Friday night.

Firefighters battled conditions of minus 12 degrees and a wind chill factor of minus 35 for nearly seven hours beginning at 6:30 Friday. when the fire was reported, according to fire department Lt. Bill Maddalena.

In a city plagued by arson fires in recent years, Friday's fire remains under investigation, Maddalena said. \The theater, situated in Green Square in the heart of the business district, had been closed since 2011 and was the scene of another fire a year ago Saturday.

"The building's still standing, but it's going to be a total loss. The Berlin Police Department and the state Fire Marshal's Office are investigating. I can't call it arson at this point, but the building was unoccupied and there was no power to it, so ...'' Maddalena said in a telephone interview Saturday morning.

He said once conditions were deemed safe for firefighters to enter (during the fire), and they got past the lobby and concession area, the high-ceiling seating section of the wood-framed building presented an open space where flames spread quickly.

Water from fire hoses began freezing almost immediately, he added, encasing the old theater in a thick coat of ice and creating very hazardous footing for firefighters, according to Maddalena. There were no injuries.

Good water pressure was maintained throughout the night, he said, despite the fact that one hydrant broke apart in the cold.

Berlin was the lone department to respond, and firefighters left the scene at 2 a.m., according to Maddalena, who said a relief crew was called back to Green Square an hour later when police saw a "hot spot" in the building.

The city was hit with more than 50 arson fires in 2008, and there have been three or four more in the past 15 months, Maddalena said.

The Princess was long considered the sister theater to the 83-year-old Rialto in downtown Lancaster. Both were throwbacks to the golden days of Hollywood, but Rochester-based TBA Theatres closed them both three years ago. The Rialto, sold at bank auction, has since reopened, and appears to be thriving under new ownership.

But no one bid on the Princess at a bank auction there, and it remained out of business.

In addition to the theater's historic and sentimental value, Maddalena said that if it has to be torn down, there'll be a gaping hole in the center of the city.

"It's a huge building. It's one of the three largest in Berlin, along with the Albert Theater, which is under renovation, and the Berlin City Bank."

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