02/22/07 — Not all was lost: Paramount fire did not destroy historic store

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Not all was lost: Paramount fire did not destroy historic store

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on February 22, 2007 1:47 PM

Not all was lost when the Paramount Theater burned.

In fact, while crowds watched the flames and smoke rise above a town landmark with tear-filled eyes, one of Goldsboro's most historic structures was spared -- the old Giddens Jewelry store building next door.

Greg Riley was there. He, too, was grieving that morning. But the loss of the Paramount, for him, was coupled with the potential loss of his future -- one of Goldsboro's most historic buildings and the home of his new law practice -- the old jewelry store.

"I remember when we came here that morning -- you'd talk to people and they'd be crying," he said. "I think the first thing that went through my head, I was in total shock. I don't think in my wildest dreams I ever would have thought the Paramount Theater would burn down."

Riley and his partner, William Orander, were originally told that their building, too, was ablaze -- a claim that later turned out to be false.

"We were scared to death," Riley said. "When he told me the building was actually on fire, we were like 'Oh, great.'"

But then the smoke started to clear.

The old jewelry store hadn't escaped the fire unscathed -- hot ashes from the theater had singed its roof, water and smoke had damaged walls, carpet and paint.

Still, the fate of the Paramount wasn't shared next door. Behind the charred façade, a history endured.

The building had been occupied by one business or another since 1859 and had already survived one fire on the block, Riley said.

"That fire burned right up to the wall and quit," he said.

Maybe it was a higher power that blew the wind just right or simply an odd twist of fate that saved the building again and again, he added.

"I don't know how to explain it," Riley said. "I would just say it's a miracle. I mean, how in the world?"

After the Paramount burned, city inspectors deemed the property unsafe and for the past two years, Riley and Orander have been running their law firm out of a building on William Street.

"It was a big pain in the butt," Riley said. "We thought we'd be out for three months, six months -- a relatively short amount of time."

But the months turned into years.

New walls had to be constructed, fresh carpet went down.

Still, through it all, the building never lost the charm that drew the young attorneys to Center Street in the first place.

"It's just a fantastic building," Riley said. "It makes you want to come to work every day."

The building's black press tin ceilings and original hardwood floors had made it through the fire and subsequent repairs without a scratch.

The clock that has stood out front since 1877, the last of its kind in the state, never lost power.

"Luckily, amazingly, there wasn't that much damage," Riley said. "It really could have been much worse."

Historians and downtown enthusiasts agree. In fact, the history of the building is much more than a detailed facade and clock.

Giddens Jewelry house was one of the first stores of its kind opened in North Carolina and its founder, L.D. Giddens, is recorded as the first in the state to sell a watch. The business survived several generations before becoming a hair salon and, now, a law office.

"It used to be the place a guy would come to if he wanted to buy an engagement ring for his girlfriend," Riley said. "The quality of the jewelry was really unmatched in this area."

Riley and Orander were given approval to move back into the building late last month, only a few weeks shy of the second anniversary of the fire.

Riley said it is difficult not to think about the history of the building when you walk into the law firm and catch a glimpse of Giddens' original jewelry case.

Maybe it was the long history of the building or spirit of L.D. Giddens that prevented the fire from spreading next door that fateful evening, he added.

"There's no way to explain why," Riley said. "We were just thrilled that it survived."