BY TOM CAIAZZA
Thompson Park will never look the same.The 110-year-old Geraldine Thompson mansion, at the heart of the park in Middletown’s Lincroft section, was ravaged in a matter of hours on Monday after a fire quickly spread through the newly renovated Visitor Center, displacing Monmouth County Park System employees and destroying more than a century of history.
The Visitor Center was in the final stretch of a $3 million renovation project to update the building’s safety systems and conduct historic preservation.
The mansion housed 15 permanent employees, 10 of which were on duty at the time of the blaze. No injuries were reported by park employees or from the more than 120 firefighters present on the scene, Laura Kirkpatrick, the Monmouth County Park System’s public information officer, said.
The fire began on the first floor of the western wing of the building, spreading throughout the historical structure and engulfing the east wing within hours.
Kirkpatrick, who had her office on the second floor of the mansion, said the fire began around 11 a.m. The official call came at 11:18 after an initial investigation by the park rangers showed that the fire required immediate attention.
According to Andy Spears, spokesman for the Middletown Fire Department, the fire required all six Middletown fire companies, as well as assistance from Red Bank and Tinton Falls. Holmdel and Colts Neck EMS were also on the scene.
Firefighters hit a snag 40 minutes after responding when a miscommunication temporarily cut off the water supply to the mansion, forcing an evacuation of firefighters, Spears said. The first engine on the scene ran out of tank water before the fire hydrant had been activated.
Spears cited a faulty radio as the reason why the hydrant had not been charged, and said that someone had to physically tell the person responsible to turn on the water.
“The fire got ahead of them,” Spears said of the evacuation.
Monmouth County Fire Marshal Timothy Smith said that the cause of the fire is still under investigation, and while not evident, investigators are not ruling out suspicious activity.
“It is under investigation,” Smith said. “There is no obvious arson going on.”
Renovation workers had been working in the area where the fire began, and Smith said that the Fire Marshal’s Office and appropriate law enforcement agencies will investigate the workers on the scene at the time.
Smith said that fire officials expected the fire to burn in small pockets throughout the night.
Deputy Chief Joseph Braun of the Middletown Police Department said that buildings this old were not built with fire stops into the construction. The age and
the wind had a double effect on the building being unable to withstand the fire.
Freeholder Bill Barham, a former Monmouth Beach fire chief, also said that the age of the building was a detriment to its fire safety.
“Old wooden structures have a tendency to be good kindling,” Barham said.
At a press conference later in the afternoon, Barham praised the many fire, police, and EMS companies that used the mutual aid system of Monmouth County to try to save the historic mansion.
“The mutual aid system is an unbelievable asset that goes on in Monmouth County,” Barham said of the system that provides communication and aid among the many emergency agencies in the county.
The entire Thompson Park was bequeathed to the Monmouth County Park System in 1967 by Geraldine Thompson, a political activist who made significant political achievements years before the suffrage movement recognized the right of women to vote.
The 40-room colonial revival mansion was built in 1896 and was the centerpiece of the Brookdale Farm, land that would eventually become Brookdale Community College, the Lincroft School and Thompson Park.
The Visitor Center had reopened to the public only 11 months ago and had been closed for renovations since October 2000. The renovated mansion included an entire floor devoted to public use as historical galleries and rooms for the many public programs the park offers.
To the many parks employees stationed at Thompson Park, this has all come as a shock. The mansion had not had a serious fire since 1923.
“It is really unfortunate,” Kirkpatrick said. “It is a beautiful building.”