Fire tears through Westhampton Beach home


A Sunday morning blaze destroyed a historic Griffing Avenue home in Westhampton Beach, taking with it four generations of family memories.

Firefighters with the Westhampton Beach, Quogue and Eastport fire departments battled the blaze, which was first reported at 11:30 a.m., for nearly three hours, according to authorities. By the time the flames were extinguished, they had gutted the interior of the six-bedroom, 150-year-old home, which is owned by George O. Guldi, a former Suffolk County legislator with a law practice in Westhampton Beach.

On Monday, Mr. Guldi, who was in Vermont with his family when the blaze broke out Sunday morning, said he was informed by the Southampton Town Fire Marshal’s office that an electrical malfunction had sparked the blaze, which began in the basement of the two-story home. He added that town officials said the cause of the fire was not suspicious.

Officials with the town fire marshal’s office did not return calls this week.

Two firefighters suffered minor injuries while battling the blaze, according to a press release issued by the Westhampton Beach Fire Department. One firefighter was injured after falling through the floor of the burning home, while the other was injured a short time later.

Fred Bauer, the public information officer for the Westhampton Beach Fire Department, said both firefighters, whom he declined to identify, were transported by Westhampton War Memorial Ambulance to Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead. Both were released later the same day, Mr. Bauer said.

No one was home when the fire started, according to Westhampton Beach Village Police. Mr. Guldi explained that he and his two children, Nick, 22, and Adea, 13, were in Vermont when the blaze broke out Sunday morning.

“We sat in traffic for hours while it burned,” Mr. Guldi said on Monday. He added that he is uncertain where he and his children will stay now that their home is destroyed, or what he will do with the remains of the house.

“My older boy can’t look at it, and my daughter can’t sleep,” Mr. Guldi said, noting that his two dogs, Twilight, a 7-month-old Newfoundland puppy, and Sunny, a pug-beagle mix, were with the family in Vermont.

Mr. Guldi, who served on the Suffolk County Legislature for nine years, said the gutted home has been in his family for three generations. Mr. Guldi explained that his late father, Walter Guldi, who died in 2004, purchased the Griffing Avenue property in 1947 and, at that time, the building was functioning as a barn. The late Mr. Guldi then converted the barn into a home.

George Guldi said he grew up in the home and spent nearly his entire life in those quarters. He added that his family has been in the electric business for more than a century, and that his late father was an electrician.

“I was born there, I have lived there since July 1953,” Mr. Guldi said, noting that family heirlooms belonging to his grandfather and grandmother were stored in the basement of the home. “There are only about four [people] in Westhampton Beach, who are long in the tooth, who can say that,” he said.

The destroyed home partly served as inspiration for the Addams Family cartoons, according to Mr. Guldi. He noted that cartoonist Charles Addams, the creator of the Addams Family, found inspiration for the character of Uncle Fester in the home’s basement, which had been filled with supplies for his father’s electrical business. The fictional Uncle Fester was known for the electrical currents that ran through his body.

On Monday, Mr. Guldi said he was still trying to comprehend the significance of his family’s loss.

“I’m in too much shock to know how it feels, I’m not functional,” Mr. Guldi said about losing his childhood home. “Today I went to the wrong courthouse. I went to Riverhead when I was supposed to be in Southampton.”

The fire was first reported at 11:30 a.m. by former Westhampton Beach Fire Department Chief Dick Van Tassel, who works as a caretaker across the street from the damaged house. Firefighters were met by large plumes of gray smoke upon their arrival at the scene, according to Westhampton Beach fire officials.

It took firefighters nearly three hours to bring the blaze under control due to the construction of the house, explained Mr. Bauer. It took nearly six hours for all three departments to completely extinguish the blaze.

Mr. Bauer explained that the home, due to its age, was built using a balloon-type construction, meaning that there are no fire walls, such as concrete blocks, to slow down a fire. “In new construction, there are pieces that go in horizontally that stop the flow of any fire going up,” Mr. Bauer said. “Old houses never had that.

“Basically, it’s like having a lot of chimneys going around the house,” Mr. Bauer continued.

Additionally, the balloon structure made the blaze more difficult to extinguish, Mr. Bauer noted.

“There is extensive damage,” Mr. Bauer said. “They may not be able to repair the home—that’s my guess. The interior was gutted. With the exterior you can see there was a fire there, but you don’t realize how bad it was until you go inside and see it’s completely gutted.”

Though his home does not have landmark status, Mr. Guldi said many other longtime village residents, such as Marion Van Tassel and Dean Speir, were upset to see such an old home destroyed.

Ms. Van Tassel, whose son was the first to spot the blaze, said she recalls when the home was still a barn. She shared that Mr. Guldi’s home was originally located on property owned by George Griffing, who had lived in the home that still sits on the northwestern corner of Griffing Avenue and Main Street. The street is also named after Mr. Griffing’s family, and Mr. Guldi noted that Mr. Griffing ran his horse-drawn freight business from the barn prior to its conversion.

“The barn went with the house,” Ms. Van Tassel explained. She also recalled when one of her former high school classmates, Red Hoare, had lived in the barn, prior to it being purchased by the Guldi family.

Mr. Speir, who is related to the Griffing family on his mother’s side, said that, at one point, the barn was used the store the contents of a Dune Road home owned by Stanley Jones, after a winter storm destroyed his waterfront house in either 1946 or 1947. The late Mr. Guldi purchased the barn a short time later, according to Mr. Speir.

Mr. Guldi explained that his late father had bought the home with the intention of settling down in Westhampton Beach.

“We had been renovating it for years,” Mr. Guldi added. “We made it very traditional. We were quite proud of the way we had fixed it up.”

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