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Morris Novelty fire proves stubborn

July 26, 2011

PAWTUCKET — A vacant commercial building that once housed a furniture store and was later known as a source for Halloween costumes, party supplies and quirky novelties, was destroyed Monday night by a fire of unknown origin.
While the cause of the fire remains under investigation, city records show that the building had been cited for several building code violations, and the latest owners were scheduled for a hearing on outstanding violations in Municipal Court next Friday.
The fire broke out at about 8:15 p.m. on the second floor of Morris Novelty, a brick and wood frame building at 523 Main St. The blaze proved stubborn to completely extinguish and firefighters remained on the scene throughout the night and into Tuesday morning, continuing to douse “hot spots.”
The business had been closed for several years and no one was inside when the fire erupted. The smoke and flames were noticed by several passers-by who phoned it in.
According to Fire Chief William Sisson, the building's sprinkler system was non-functioning so there was no water being supplied to it. He said there were other structural problems, such as there being essentially a maze of wall dividers and stairwells, and some holes in the flooring, which made it too difficult and dangerous for the firefighters to enter with the hoses. Instead, they fought the blaze from the exterior and at both ends of the structure, Sisson said.
In addition, Sisson said, the building was filled with costumes, boxes of merchandise, plastic wrapping and other remnants left over from the novelties business which kept burning and created a thick, black smoke in the immediate neighborhood. While no firefighters were injured in the four-alarm blaze, Sisson said the firefighters were continuously monitored for carbon monoxide due to the acrid smoke.
Sisson said that once the building was deemed to be safe to enter, which was expected by the afternoon, an investigation would be conducted by local police and fire investigators, including Capt Steven Parent, the city's fire marshal; and representatives from the State Fire Marshal's office.
He said he also expected the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms would be brought in as part of the investigation, which is common for fires in large vacant buildings such as this one.
Parent said on Tuesday morning that it was too early to speculate about possible causes of the fire. He said the building, while vacant and boarded up, still had electrical service, which was one of the areas that would be looked at.
City officials said the building, which had long been under the ownership of Kenneth Stebenne of North Providence and operated by him and his family for many years as Morris Novelty, had been cited several times in recent years for building and fire code violations.
The property owners also owed the city in back taxes for several years, which eventually led to a tax sale of the property, according to city records.
City records show that there were numerous missed appearances in Municipal Court and letters that were returned as undeliverable that had been addressed to Stebenne and his corporation, Sir Alton Bradford, Inc. of 523 Main St., Pawtucket from 2006 through 2009.
In August of 2006, a citation for a “second notice of housing standards violations” was issued to Kenneth Stebenne based on water damage to floors and ceilings that had resulted in a substantial amount of mold. A customer had first complained about the conditions earlier that year, saying the building appeared to be full of mold and the employees were using electric space heaters.
In July of 2007, Stebenne, under his corporate name of Sir Alton Bradford, Inc., was again cited, this time by the city's Fire Department, for having a non-operational sprinkler system, no smoke detection system in place, structural deficiencies, a blocked egress and accumulated debris. In November, he was issued a summons to appear in Municipal Court on November 14, 2007.
In October of 2008 (a week before Halloween), Stebenne's corporation, Sir Alton Bradford, Inc., was again cited and summoned to Municipal Court for having a building with unsafe conditions and occupying an unsafe building. An appended notation to an earlier citation dated July of 2008 stated that the property was vacant and had been boarded up.
In March of 2009, the property was again cited after a complaint from a neighboring business about large pieces of shingles and roofing material blowing off the roof. It was also stated that the rear wall above a window appeared to be collapsing. A certified letter cites a building inspection that was conducted at the property and it was found to be in violation of the state building code for unsafe conditions. The owner was ordered to correct the conditions by March 11, 2009.
According to city officials, on Dec. 14, 2010, Amy Realty of 189 Wickenden St., Providence, purchased the property at a tax sale from Sir Alton Bradford, Inc. On June 28, 2011 Amy Realty, RIGP, granted the property by a quit claim deed to Phoenix Worldwide, RIGP, of 1445 Wampanoag Trail, East Providence, for “one dollar and other good and valuable consideration” as stated in the deed.
The building's owners were scheduled to appear before the city's Municipal Court on August 5 for a hearing to answer to the outstanding violations. However, according to city officials, this will likely be moot in that it appears that the building will have to be demolished.
According to the Tax Collector's office, to date, the current owners, Phoenix Worldwide, RIGP, owe the city $12,547 in tax payments (all of 2010 plus the first quarter of 2011).


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