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UPDATED: Crews battle fire at Point Defiance Pagoda structure

Post by Stacey Mulick / The News Tribune on April 15, 2011 at 5:49 am |
April 15, 2011 2:19 pm

UPDATE as of 12:10 p.m.:  Investigators now say the fire is “suspicious in origin,” Tacoma police spokesman Mark Fulghum said.

A Tacoma police detective and forensic specialists have responded to the Pagoda to investigate further.

Investigators will be looking at whether the fire is related to a break-in at the Pagoda last week or small fires set in the park over the past couple of weeks, Fulghum said.

The fire is now out.

ORIGINAL POST:

An early morning fire has damaged the iconic, nearly 100-year-old Pagoda structure inside Point Defiance Park but Metro Parks officials believe the brick building can be repaired.

It will just take awhile, though exactly how long will not be known until inspectors can get into the building to assess the damage. The building is insured.

“We need some time to gather more information,” said Marina Becker,  who manages operations and maintenance for Metro Parks. “We are going to carefully get our instructions from the fire department.”

Meanwhile, Metro Parks events staff were already working to move events planned for the building, including a wedding tonight.

“I think this is going to affect a lot of people directly because this is their rental but also a lot of people indirectly because it’s our heritage,” Becker said.

The fire damage was concentrated on the building’s southern end, where the kitchen was located. Fire crews were pulling clay tiles off the roof at that end and using chainsaws to to ventilate the structure. The windows were tinted from the smoke damage.

“We’ll come back,” Metro Parks Commissioner Tim Reid said as he watched firefighters work on the roof as white smoke continued to billow out.

The entrance to the park has been closed to cars as fire crews continue to work on the Pagoda. Other parts of the park, including the zoo, were open.

“It’s been a substantial fire,” Tacoma fire spokesman Joe Meinecke said.

Crews were called to the building at 4:25 a.m. after a Metro Parks garbage worker spotted the fire. When firefighters arrived, they found the building “fully charged with smoke,” Meinecke said.

The fire was upgraded to a second alarm, bringing more fire crews to the scene, at 4:45 a.m.

Meinecke said there were flames throughout the basement and the main hall. Firefighters got the bulk of the fire out after about an hour but were continuing to work on hot spots in the wood-frame roof. They were pulling off the original clay tiles on the roof to get at the spots, making Metro Parks officials cringe every time.

“When you have a historical building like this, how do you replace it?” Reid said of the tiles.

No injuries have been reported. While a cause of the blaze is not yet known, Meinecke said there was nothing suspicious about the fire early in the investigation.

There was a wedding rehearsal in the Pagoda on Thursday night and a wedding planned for tonight. Students from the Tacoma School District’s Science and Math Institute used the building everyday for lunch.

“It’s really sad for the whole city,” Becker said. “It’s a historic treasure.”

The Pagoda is the centerpiece of the park’s Japanese Garden. It’s a replica of a 17th century Japanese Lodge and has hosted weddings, memorial services, meetings and parties for years.

Built in 1914 by Luther Twitchell, the building originally served as a wait station for street cars. It later was a bus depot and, after it was remodeled in the 1960s, became a meeting place for garden clubs.

It’s now used for an array of activities, from weddings to memorial services, meetings and school classes. The roof was restored in the 1980s and returned to its original green color.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” said Melissa McGinnis, Metro Parks historic and cultural resource manager. “For almost 100 years, this building has been treated with respect by the community.”

It has recently been the victim of vandals, however.

Last year, thieves pried off some of the building’s original light fixtures as well as door handles and brass plates. Metro Parks officials had replicas of the light fixtures made but had not yet installed them, McGinnis said.

Last week, someone broke into the basement of the building and did some vandalism, officials said.

McGinnis wasn’t aware of any previous fires in the pagoda.

“People have just cared about this building for so long,” she said.

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