Fire damages Highland Hall

Cause of blaze under investigation

Photo for the Mirror by J.D. Cavrich / Volunteers from Phoenix Volunteer Fire Company work on the rear addition roof of Highland Hall to put out a fire that burned several new air-conditioning units Wednesday.

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Orange flames licked skyward behind plumes of dark smoke Wednesday afternoon in Hollidaysburg Borough, where firefighters worked to extinguish a blaze atop historic Highland Hall.

The fire on the 500 block of Walnut Street began after 4 p.m. on the roof of a portion of the three-story building, which is currently under construction, Phoenix Volunteer Fire Department Chief Tony DiBona said.

About 4:40 p.m., nearly a dozen fire engines from multiple companies lined Walnut Street and the parallel Spruce Street, which runs behind the building.

A ladder stretched toward the roof near the back of the building as firefighters sprayed water on mostly extinguished flames.

A light white smoke still rose from the building.

Spectators like Keith Duck displayed photos of the blaze on cellphones, showing the building shortly after the fire’s ignition. They depicted high-reaching flames and dark smoke.

“All you could smell was this smoke,” Duck said, explaining he watched the fire from his Spruce Street porch. “You could see it really good.”

Firefighters remained on scene until after 5 p.m., using different tools to probe the fire-damaged roof.

DiBona said several roof-top air-conditioning units, some still in their boxes, were burned. The fire may have started in one of those units, he said.

“It appears to be a rooftop air-conditioning unit right now, but we are still investigating the cause,” he said.

No one was injured by the fire, DiBona said.

“We had it under control fairly quickly,” he said.

Highland Hall, which was constructed in the 1840s, is considered a historically significant building by many Hollidaysburg residents and officials. The building has served numerous purposes since its construction, but it has remained vacant for more than a decade.

In that time, the building fell into disrepair, but last year, S&A Homes — a State College-based development company — finalized plans to make at least $13 million worth of renovations to the structure.

Work to turn the aging building into a senior housing facility began shortly after, and continued this week. Builders aim to save portions of the historic building, with new construction making up the remainder of the housing facility.

The rooftop that caught fire Wednesday was atop a portion of a newly constructed wing, S&A Homes Executive Vice President Andy Haines said.

A large group of spectators gathered to watch as the rooftop burned. Among them was Hollidaysburg Borough Councilman Joseph Dodson. Dodson commented on the irony of the situation.

“We all thought the old building was going to burn down, but we got this beautiful new structure. And we don’t know what happened, but it caught fire,” Dodson said before commending area firefighters for their prompt response.

As firefighters continued their work, Haines said his company was sending a project manager to the site to estimate damages.

“We just heard about it,” he said, unable to confirm whether the fire would extend the project’s timeline.

Duck said he hopes that is not the case. He said he is fed up with noise and traffic associated with construction.

“I don’t know what’s going to go on now,” Duck said.

Originally, building renovations were scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.

Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.