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Blaze destroys building  in Gary; demolition set

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Updated: January 7, 2014 6:24AM

GARY ­— Fire broke out in a vacant, crumbling downtown hotel that housed a church Wednesday night. Now, city officials plan to demolish what’s left of the structure because of its proximity to a new charter school.

The fire started at the former Plaza Hotel, 32 W. 8th Ave., about 11 p.m., Gary Fire Department spokesman Mark Jones said.

The building was home to God’s House of Prayer Church, which held services in an area on the building’s east side. There was no heat or electric service in the former hotel, but the church had utilities.

City Building Commissioner Steven Marcus said the hotel structure had been cited for numerous code violations and was ordered as a “do not occupy” building last year.

Marcus said the building was being monitored.

“In the case of blighted and vacant buildings, we want to ensure that we are preserving as many historic assets as possible. The structure at 22-36 W. 8th Avenue was designated as a contributor to the Gary City Center Historic District National Register of Historic Places,” he said.

Cedric Kuykendall, demolition coordinator for the Redevelopment Department, said he solicited bids Thursday for demolition and once all the utilities have been shut down, the building will be razed.

Jones said Gary, Merrillville and Munster fire departments battled the blaze until about 3:30 a.m. Thursday.

Jones said the building was engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived shortly after 11 p.m. There were no injuries. Three fire trucks and four engines finally put out the fire. Jones said it was too early to determine the cause of the blaze.

“There was a small church on the main floor, but nobody was in it,” he said. “We haven’t drawn any conclusions.”

Because the building is directly west of the new 21st Century Charter School, which opened in September, Jones said they hope to demolish it as soon as possible.

“It’s a safety hazard for the school,” Jones said.

The church owned the building, according to Joretha Rhines, of Gary. She and her husband, William Rhines, deeded it to the church about a year ago. However, the couple are still listed as the building’s owners on the Lake County Treasurer’s property tax website.

Joretha Rhines said they operated the old hotel it as a boarding house from 1998 to 2004. She said the Plaza Hotel, a Gary landmark, was built in 1926. She and her husband purchased it as an income property.

“We tried to get it going but we had problems with the city,” she said. The treasurer listed back taxes on the site at more than $70,000.

Longtime church member Mitchell Johnson stood somberly across the street from the wreckage Thursday wondering how congregation members will rebuild their home.

“A lot of people have come here through the years. It will be missed,” Johnson said. “We hope that God has something better planned for us.”

Precinct committeeman Earl Love lives nearby and came to look at the rubble Thursday morning.

“This block is considered a historic district,” he said. “That’s why they haven’t done anything with it.”

Love said he’s seen homeless people go in and out of the building. Bottles of alcohol and beer were strewn in the alley as Northern Indiana Public Service Co. gas department workers Robert Cauchon and Keith Pickett prepared to dig out the gas line so the building could be demolished.

Al Cohen, the owner of Union Furniture, 761 Washington St., next to the old hotel, said his alarm company called him about 1:30 a.m.

“They told me there was a fire,” he said. Cohen came down to the store he’s operated since 1962, but it wasn’t damaged. Firefighters broke down his front door, though, so they could gain access to fight the fire.

Cohen said they didn’t need to knock down his door since his building wasn’t damaged.

“My concern is securing my building now,” he said.

Earlier this summer, officials closed 8th Avenue when bricks began falling off the building that’s now awaiting demolition.

Correspondent Michelle L Quinn contributed.

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