From the ashes: Denison unveils new sculpture at site of 2019 downtown fire

Michael Hutchins
Herald Democrat
A new art installation in downtown Denison pays honor to the three downtown buildings that were destroyed in a fire in 2019.

For many Denison residents, Oct. 9, 2019 has gone down as a day that the streetscape and character of downtown was changed forever. Over the course of a few hours three of the city's historic buildings were destroyed in a fire that destroyed homes, displaced businesses and simultaneously brought the community together in support of those who had lost everything.

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Now two years later, city and community leaders have unveiled a new piece of art memorializing the event and the efforts to redevelop the site and, like a metaphorical phoenix, bring it back from the ashes.

Saturday morning, "Flight", the new sculpture at the site of the fire in the 300 block of W. Main, was unveiled.

"October 9, 2019 began just like today has with a sunrise and the promise of another amazing day in downtown Denison," Mayor Pro Tem Brian Hander said. "By the end of the day, everyone standing here would be affected in some way, both large and small, by the events that unfolded on that momentous day.

"Two years later, we've come to reflect on those events, to celebrate the achievements since that time and to reaffirm our commitments to see this block made whole once again."

The new sculpture, created by artists Jodi Castelli and Mark Niemi of Casni Studio, depicts a bird in flight, with many speakers and attendees during Saturday's unveiling comparing it to a phoenix rising from the remains of the fire. The metal sculpture uses pieces from the former buildings including iron beams and accent pieces and blue tile.

The fire started shortly after 10 a.m. on Oct. 9, 2019 in the Luxor Nails & Spa, located at 317 W. Main. Last year, city officials said the fire was likely accidental and caused by a faulty appliance.

While initial reports centered the fire on 317 W. Main, it quickly spread to the neighboring 319 and 321 W. Main. Ultimately, all three buildings were lost in the fire, while others suffered varying degrees of damage.

Denison Mayor Janet Gott was not in town when the fire started. She and other members of city staff were attending a Texas Municipal League Conference in San Antonio, but received regular updates throughout the day from Finance Director Renee Waggoner, who was acting city manager that day.

"The worst possible nightmare for a city with a historic district had become a devastating reality," Gott said.

Mayor Pro Tem Brian Hander removes a sheet covering a new sculpture in downtown Denison. The new art piece, titled Flight, was unveiled Saturday in commemoration of the downtown fire the destroyed three buildings in October 2019.

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While the fire displaced several families who were living in lofts in the buildings and destroyed businesses, Gott said the fire brought out the best in the city as people moved to support each other and assist in the recovery.

"No, the landscape of the 300 block will never be the same, but together we are making a new landscape — one that will serve the heart of our city for the next 100 years," Gott said.

The Denison Arts Council was one of the groups that stepped up to assist in the recovery when it raised $10,000 for the families affected by the fire through a shirt drive. The league also donated $4,000 toward the sculpture installation.

Like Gott, Wendy Acosta, owner of 319 W. Main, was away at a trade show in Las Vegas when the fire started. She quickly was able to get in touch with friends and family who initially thought the damage would be limited to just smoke. However, this all changed over the course of an hour and a half.

"It was gut wrenching knowing that we played our part in restoring this building and designing it to be beautiful and creating beautiful homes for people to live in," Acosta said.

Acosta said the roof of her building collapsed onto the second floor and the front structure also gave way. The fire destroyed the loft apartments in her building alongside her business, The Desk and Easel, which operated as a collective work space. Acosta also lost many of her own art pieces in the blaze.

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Early on, Acosta was able to watch the fire unfold from security cameras within her building. She watched as a thin haze of smoke slowly became thicker until the video died as power to the block was cut.

Acosta has since relocated her business to 500 W. Woodard, but still plans to rebuild. She is still assessing her options and what would be viable for the lot in the future.

Denison Mayor Janet Gott speaks in downtown Denison Saturday during the unveiling of a new statue commemorating the downtown fire of 2019 which destroyed three buildings and damaged many others.

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