The Daily Pulse:

More on the McClung Fire

Mayor Madeline Rogero, who returned from her week-long goodwill junket to Turkey just last night, visited the site of Saturday morning's McClung warehouse fire this afternoon, and offered a brief statement about the situation. It's still unknown whether the six-story building remaining on site--it was the larger of the two--is structurally sound enough to merit rehabilitation. She said engineers would be on site on Tuesday, and she hoped the city would soon know something positive. Witnesses say the fire appeared to affect mainly its uppermost floors. She emphasized the historical importance of the large building, all that remains of the C.M. McClung Co., once a major regional hardware firm, which had its headquarters on that site for almost a century.

The ca. 1927 Crane building, the main locus of the fire, is obviously a total loss. Only part of the railroad-side wall remains standing, and it appears extremely fragile. Besides the taller building, a long one-story 1920s brick facade along West Jackson, mostly an empty shell for some years, is intact, or as intact as it was last week.

Fire Marshal Danny Beeler said the fire started on one of the building's middle floors, and affirmed what many suspected, that "human activity" was definitely a factor. When asked whether it was a homeless issue, he demurred, saying he didn't want to "narrow it down to the homeless." He said it's still unknown whether the fire was deliberate or accidental, but that they were interviewing witnesses, and had hopes of identifying a suspect.

Beeler acknowledged that despite razor wire and attempts to fill some holes, the city had never been able to completely secure the building, whose purchase was completed just in November, from trespassers. Neighbors reportedly had been calling police about people getting into the old buildings during the winter, but Beeler said the only way to completely secure the building would have been to post a 24-hour guard. "Regardless of what you do, short of building a moat, they're going to find a way to defeat what you do," he said.

Rogero called the loss "heartbreaking," adding that the fire was "an example of why we fought so hard to get control of these buildings." She said she was at a U.S. air base in Turkey when she learned of the fire by way of a call from policy-development director Bill Lyons, at 4:30 Saturday morning, Knoxville time. She knew about it before some neighbors did.

Rogero and Director of Redevelopment Bob Whetsel affirmed that the city's plan it to proceed with the schedule to stabilize what remains, put out a request for proposals, and get it into private hands by the end of 2014. Rogero affirmed that she has hopes of saving the remaining building. "Regardless, this is a prime piece of real estate we are developing." This long block of West Jackson, between Gay and Broadway, home of several dozen new residences, and quite a few new businesses, plus the large, unusual event space known as the Standard, has seen more new development in the last couple of years than any comparable stretch in the central part of town. The McClung warehouses were the last vacant buildings on West Jackson, and among the last vacant buildings downtown.  

In fact, until that's known, the immediate neighborhood, which includes the offices of well-known design firm of Sanders Pace and at least one residence, will have to remain evacuated, because of the hazard of collapse. Sanders Pace is taking up temporary quarters in the nearby Southeastern Glass building. The section of West Jackson, between the Standard and the Southeastern Glass building, is closed to traffic until the building's soundness has been assessed and assured.

One poignant remnant of the fire rests in the parking lot across the street. It's what little remains of a red BMW 325i convertible, both burned and battered by falling bricks. Its owner wasn't known to those at the press conference.

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