ESCANABA — The hole in the 1000 block of Ludington Street from a fire last week that destroyed two buildings and killed a tenant in an upstairs apartment is hard to miss. The damage to the neighboring East Ludington Gallery and the countless pieces by local artists inside its walls may require a second glance.
“What you’re looking at that looks normal is not normal,” said Craig Woerpel, who owns the building, shifting a U.P.-shaped cribbage board to show the perfect outline of the peninsula left on a smoke-stained shelf.
Throughout the gallery space, everything looks gray. Ignoring the smoke smell — which is hard to do — it would be easy to think the lighting was poor or the walls and shelves were just painted a trendy beige-gray. It’s only when items are moved that the bright white beneath where they were sitting on shelves during the fire is exposed.
The once-vivid colors of photo prints, scarves, and other items are all muted by the gray tone. Only glass items, like a shelf where someone wrote “Hello” in the soot, smudge or wipe clean. Everything else has been permanently dyed by the smoke that hovered seven feet high in the building even after the neighboring buildings had been extinguished.
According to Woerpel, the East Ludington Gallery, which is a co-op of over 45 area artist, had renters insurance, but not insurance to cover the artwork inside the building.
“All of the artists are losing all their art, and people need to understand that, and that because of the condition of our building, they’re not going to be able to return,” said Woerpel.
Following the fire, a large crack appeared on the building’s west side, which was closest to the blaze. Tearing out the plaster and lathe of an upstairs apartment revealed gaps in the wall, some as wide as two inches, where bricks separated, letting in light and cold air.
“The community needs to know that two buildings were lost, and there may be the possibility of a third one,” said Woerpel.
Woerpel and his wife Patty are waiting to hear from their insurance company about whether or not the building can be repaired or must be demolished. In the meantime, they have been doing what they can to salvage the things they owned in the building. Broadcast equipment, tapes of projects Woerpel had worked on over the years, magazines he published, camera gear, a photo studio, and a partially-constructed darkroom were all destroyed when water from the firefighting efforts filled the building’s basement.
“The thing is down here, this is the stages of my life. All my photography, all my video, all of, you know, our personal gear was all stored down here. Now it’s gone,” said Woerpel.
More than 2,000 gallons of water had to be pumped out of the basement. The boiler that heated the building was destroyed by the two-feet of standing water, leaving any salvage efforts to take place in the cold. As much as the Woerpel’s want to replace the furnace, it doesn’t make sense if the building can’t be repaired.
Upstairs in the building are two apartments. One was vacant — the result of a $10,000 renovation project the Woerpels were undertaking. The other belonged to Woerpel’s 26-year-old niece, Lauren Hovland, an artist in her own right. She is perhaps best known for scene painting for Players de Noc productions as well as producing smaller pieces sold at pop-up markets.
Hovland was in bed at the time of the fire. Her bed was right against where the crack formed in the outer wall, though Woerpel believes the crack opened when the building cooled. She woke up when she heard Greg Jensen, owner of the now-destroyed Trinkets & Treasures, shouting outside that there was a fire and she needed to get out.
“She thought it was a prank at first — didn’t know what to do. And her cat, who normally hides, was on the bed. I joked that it was ready to go,” said Woerpel.
Hovland left in her pajamas. She’s now staying with family.
Woerpel said there are plans to auction off one of Hovland’s paintings, unofficially dubbed “Out of the Ashes.” The image is of a woman, outlined in green, with wild, curling hair. A sheet of paper or another canvas was lying on the piece when the fire happened, leaving the image itself on a mostly-white background and framed by the same smokey beige-gray that stained the gallery below.
Woerpel started a GoFundMe for Hovland to buy new art supplies. As of 1 p.m. Tuesday, more than $1,400 had been donated by 30 people.
The artists in the East Ludington Gallery are also receiving community support. A spaghetti dinner is planned for Friday at the Bonifas Arts Center, from 4 to 7 p.m. All proceeds from the dinner will go to the East Ludington Gallery association.
The Bonifas has also offered to host a special exhibit of the East Ludington Gallery artists. The East Ludington Gallery association has a meeting this week to determine if they will hold the show and plan out their next steps following the fire. If the gallery members hold the show, it would take place between April 4 and May 2 — replacing the “50 Years in the Making” exhibit the Bonifas planned to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
While the community is rallying around Hovland and the other artists, they aren’t the only ones still hurting from the fire. Woerpel is quick to note that in addition to the total losses of Trinkets & Treasures and Schwalbach Kitchens, which was owned by Ken Schwalbach, other businesses were also damaged by smoke and water.
And, of course, one person didn’t survive the blaze.
“We always have to remember that life was lost in this situation, and that’s the more important thing,” said Woerpel.
As of Tuesday, Escanaba Public Safety was not releasing the name of the victim nor giving a cause for the fire, which took nearly 12 hours to extinguish. Much of that time was spent looking for the missing tenant and trying to put out hotspots after the Trinkets & Treasures building collapsed.
A pile of rubble from the blaze still sits behind the former Trinkets & Treasures and Schwalbach Kitchens buildings, surrounded by yellow caution tape. Woerpel noted the area has become an attraction for gawkers, but he has hopes that the hole in Escanaba’s Downtown business district can be repaired with new buildings.
“It’s easy to say, oh, we had a fire, now it’s time to move on to the next story. No, there’s people over there that are still affected. There’s people here that are still affected by this fire — and the town is, because now we’ve got a big gaping hole in the community that we don’t need another gaping hole in,” he said.
In addition to his work as a photographer and radio personality, Woerpel serves as the Escanaba Downtown Development Authority director. He said he’s already been in contact with the city about the possibility of replacement buildings being constructed where the old ones where, which could be tricky, given that the buildings were built before modern zoning rules.
“We need to do everything possible to make sure that happens,” he said.
Alice J. Roden started working for Trending Insurance News at the end of 2021. Alice grew up in Salt Lake City, UT. A writer with a vast insurance industry background Alice has help with several of the biggest insurance companies. Before joining Trending Insurance News, Alice briefly worked as a freelance journalist for several radio stations. She covers home, renters and other property insurance stories.