A multi-alarm fire in the bank section of Hamden heavily damaged the two-story commercial building popularly known as the French-Italian Building. The fire started in an electrical panel in the rear of the second floor and quickly spread into the voids above.
Firefighters quickly initiated an interior attack but were hindered in their efforts to confine the blaze. A common cockloft above false ceilings allowed the fire to extend into confined spaces that were impossible to reach. After about an hour, a very large air-conditioning unit atop the already weakened roof necessitated the evacuation of all firefighters from the building. Shortly thereafter the air-conditioning unit fell through. The fire was finally extinguished with master streams from both ladder trucks. Four firefighters received minor injuries.
Erected in 1948, the classic Art Deco design building housed six stores on the first floor and ten commercial offices on the second. The French-Italian Importing Company, a one-story liquor store that was partitioned from the main building, was located right on the corner of Dixwell and Helen.
The building was rebuilt within a year. The French-Italian Importing Company is still in business today. At least three Hamden firefighters, Fred Knudsen, Danny O'Connell, and Burt Hillocks, worked there part-time on their days off from the fire department. Burt recently recalled that he used to make local deliveries for the liquor store and noted that the folks who owned French-Italian Imports were nice folks to work for.
The above color photo by Kirby Kennedy was on the front page of the January 25, 1985 edition of The New Haven Journal-Courier. The Journal-Courier, published by the The New Haven Register, was New Haven's morning newspaper until it ceased publication in March 1987.
We found the newspaper item (below) in the archives of the Hamden Historical Society while leafing through some back issues of The Hamden Chronicle. It was on front page of the March 25, 1948 edition, which seems to correct erroneous news accounts that the "French-Italian" building was between 70 and 90 years old at the time of the 1985 fire. In fact, the building was less than 40 years old.
CLICK on the photo at left to view a YouTube selection showing coverage from three local newscasts (WVIT-Channel 30, WTNH-Channel 8 and WFSB-Channel 3), followed by several minutes of raw video footage taken by freelance videographer Pete Thomas, who often contributed to local television newscasts.
In this memorable photo by Register photographer Brad Clift, Lieut. Bob Mordecai (2nd from left) of Engine 3, is shown leading numerous Hamden volunteer firefighters in placing what appears to be a 16' wooden truss ladder. (CLICK TO ENLARGE)
June 26, 2019: This memorable French-Italian fire photo is scanned from the original 10x14" glossy. For years it was thought to have been lost. The framed photo was recently discovered hanging in the home of a retired fire officer to whom it had been given many years ago.
The previous version of this image had been a photo-shopped scan from the newspaper. Snapped by Register photographer Brad Clift, the photo also had been mistakenly attributed to another photographer. Website apologies to Mr. Clift.