GARDINER — The two excavators made quick work of the building at 17 Bridge St., their long arms and heavy buckets crunching through the clapboard structure like it was a candy bar.

But before three stories had been reduced to rubble, then hauled away in a Dumpster, Dennis Wheelock made off with his own memento: a sign that bore his name, and that of his longtime business.

“Figured I had to come see the old girl come down,” said Wheelock, after he’d loaded the old sign for Dennis’ Pizza into his car, but before the demolition crew had gotten to work. “Thirty years to build it; one day for it to come down.”

That sign was well-known to many who have passed through downtown Gardiner, some of whom came to watch the pizza parlor fall on Presidents Day morning.

The restaurant was actually more than 30 years old, and a section of the building has been there for a century. It was known as Joe’s Pizza before Wheelock purchased and expanded it in the 1980s.

Almost five years ago, Wheelock sold the business to Kara and Andrew Waller, and in late 2016, they sold the building to the state Department of Transportation, in advance of a project that will see the replacement of two bridges on Bridge Street and Maine Avenue;.

The owners eventually decided to close Dennis’ Pizza for good, in part because they couldn’t afford to temporarily close while the state project proceeds. But other factors also influenced their decision, including an increase in the state’s minimum wage, the competition from a new Gardiner location of Domino’s, and difficulty finding a new site.

The closure and destruction of the Gardiner mainstay has left some residents feeling nostalgic, even upset.

“I’ve been eating there for 42 and a half years, from the minute I was born,” said Jolene Ladd, a 43-year-old who walked about 2 miles from her place on Highland Avenue to photograph the demolition Monday morning. “It’s a big part of Gardiner history. It’s going to be really missed.”

Temperatures were still in the 20s early Monday morning, and she added, “I’m trying not to cry because I don’t want my eyes to freeze.”

The bulk of the tear-down was completed by noontime. As the excavators began tearing through the structure, lumber, insulation and other debris fell into a heap, along with the occasional artifact: a Pepsi-branded refrigerator, a red plastic crate.

The wreckage accumulated in the Arcade parking lot between Bridge Street and Maine Avenue. One of the excavators positioned its bucket to the north side of the building, ensuring that none of it fell into Cobbossee Stream. On either side of the stream, people used their phones to take photos and videos of the project.

Another bystander was Mike McArthur, 37, a lifelong customer of Dennis’ Pizza who fondly recalled the portraits of little league teams displayed on its walls, including a few with his sons.

As he and Ladd chatted before the demolition started, they both recalled sandwiches they enjoyed. The Denny Buster – a large sub-style sandwich with many meats, cheeses and other fixings – was enough to “feed my whole family,” McArthur said.

But some residents, such as Robert Abbey, were also focused on the improvements that are yet to come along Cobbossee Stream, including an extended walking trail and, with the removal of Dennis’ Pizza, better views of the stream in the area where it flows into the Kennebec River. Abbey is helping develop those plans as a board member with Gardiner Main Street, and he was among those watching the demolition on Monday morning.

Wheelock also said he felt “bittersweet” watching his namesake restaurant crumble.

He’s sad to see the building go, and proud of the fact that it employed many people, including more than 500 high school students. But he also sits on a committee that has been studying the downtown bridges and noted that the demolition will allow Maine DOT to complete its project more quickly.

“That’ll help downtown,” he said.

With the recent news coverage about the demolition, he also said that some old friends and customers have been calling to pay their respects.

“It kind of makes me feel good how many people have reached out,” he said.

Charles Eichacker can be contacted at 621-5642 or at:

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