Family leaning toward rebuilding at site of fire

2013-03-05T13:25:00Z 2013-03-06T17:43:12Z Family leaning toward rebuilding at site of firePhil Wieland phil.wieland@nwi.com, (219) 548-4352 nwitimes.com

VALPARAISO | As the ruins smoldered and the last wall was coming down at 204 Lincolnway, Duane Thormahlen said the family is leaning toward rebuilding on the site of the former Empire Hall.

Thormahlen, whose father Robert bought the building in 1979 and had an accounting business there until his retirement, said a final decision won't be made until after the rubble is removed.

"We are still trying to get over the shock of the building burning," he said. "Eight families lost their homes. We think of our tenant businesses as families. We've been in contact with them. Several have asked if we plan to rebuild because they would like to come back to that location."

City Administrator Bill Oeding said the building is within the downtown tax increment financing district and could be eligible for tax breaks if the Thormahlens decide to rebuild.

Recalling how long it took to redevelop the site of the former Highland department store on Franklin Street after it was destroyed by fire in February 1996, Oeding said, "We hope something happens soon. That's a big footprint downtown."

Thormahlen said he was notified of the fire at about 1:45 a.m. Monday and arrived shortly after the fire trucks. He remained at the site until almost 9 p.m. Monday and made return visits Tuesday as work continued.

A passerby called in the alarm at 1:30 a.m. Although the fire was contained to the century-old building, the Sievers Insurance offices next door suffered water and smoke damage.

Todd Van Keppel, whose mother Marilyn Van Keppel and aunt Carole Kruger own the building, said some damage was done to the roof, and the water damage was mostly to the basement and some to the first floor. After the east wall of the former Empire Hall building is torn down, they will be able to see if their own wall was damaged.

"We will work on getting restoration and repairs made," Van Keppel said. "Everything in the business is in decent shape. There was some damage to archive type paperwork, which will not be of a significant nature. The main thing is that it can be repaired or replaced."

He praised the firefighters for containing the blaze.

Lincolnway between Franklin and Morgan Boulevard in downtown Valparaiso was reopened by midday Tuesday although Michigan Street could be closed for some time to accommodate the cleanup of the building.

Firefighters finally were able to leave the scene by mid-afternoon, and demolition workers took down the remaining east wall of the building at 204 Lincolnway on Tuesday. Oeding said, with the fire out, the key will be for the owner to secure the site with a fence and haul away the debris.

Some of the exterior walls were pulled down onto the street to avoid adding to the debris inside the structure that could be contaminated with asbestos or other hazardous material.

Electricity and gas were back on for most of the businesses on the block by late morning today, but Jimmy's Cafe on the south side was still without gas, Oeding said.

The Thormahlens' building housed several businesses, including a mortgage company, tailor, bead store and several offices.

"I was thrilled it wasn't worse than it was," Oeding said. "The fire department didn't have to battle high winds. It was cold, but the weather wasn't that bad."

Although most of the walls were knocked down Monday to prevent them from falling on adjacent buildings or onto Lincolnway, firefighters remained at the scene overnight to douse hot spots. The cause of the fire isn't known and might never be known because of the need to demolish the building quickly.

The debris from the roof and two inside floors fell into the basement, which made it harder for firefighters to reach the hot spots with water.

Empire Hall opened as a livery stable in 1901 and later served as a hardware store, dance hall and American Legion meeting room over the years.

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