LINCOLN PARK — A blaze erupted at the 114-year-old former Mulligan Elementary School in Lincoln Park early Tuesday morning — a week after the developer transforming the building into condos said the potential for a fire there was his "biggest fear."
The developer had hired guard dogs to patrol the property at 1855-63 N. Sheffield Ave. in response to repeated break-ins and vandalism. Some neighbors raised concerns over the snarling dogs in the residential area.
Firefighters remained at the scene until late Tuesday afternoon, continuously dousing the four-story building, which one fire chief later called an "ice castle."
As of Tuesday night, the cause of the fire remained under investigation.
Willie English, 67, stood on the sidewalk across from Mulligan in a puffy jacket, hood up Tuesday. English couldn't believe what he heard when he flipped on the radio hours earlier Tuesday morning: His old school was up in flames.
English made sure to stop by to get what he thought might be a last look at the old building.
"I wanted it to be a landmark," English said. "I really am upset. Now they can tear it down."
The extra-alarm blaze snarled the morning commute for thousands of CTA users because the property sits feet from the Purple and Brown line "L" tracks. Those tracks were frozen over during the fight in record-low temperatures.
"From time to time it does happen that things freeze up," said deputy fire chief Dan Cunningham. "In this case here, everything went very well. We didn’t have any issues other than firefighters who were certainly extremely cold."
When the blaze started in the southwest corner of the four-story building, firefighters originally thought they would be able to keep it under control, according to Chris Oster, who lives in an apartment next door.
Oster said he then saw the windows of the development breaking as the fire grew.
"It was pretty loud. We could see the glass exploding from the building next door," he said.
Oster said his entire three-flat was evacuated around 1:45 a.m., and firefighters told him they were having trouble because fire engines couldn't reach the back of the building due to the L tracks and narrow alley.
Nick Vittore, vice president of Svigos LLC development group, told DNAinfo Chicago last week that he was forced to hire guard dogs to combat repeated vandalism at his property.
"We don't want anyone in that building, because if someone gets in there and gets hurt, that's a problem," he said. "Our biggest fear is someone goes in there and starts a fire."
Vittore said people have been breaking into the building for months.
The developer was planning to create 24 condos after a complete gut rehab. Svigos purchased the building for $4 million in June and had hoped to have its first tenants arrive in 18 to 24 months. He had hoped to use salvaged materials from Barat College in Lake Forest in the Mulligan School project.
Neighbors of the development said they had been looking forward to seeing the finished product. Workers had been painstakingly refurbishing the building for months.
"I was really happy for them. It looked like it was going to be a fantastic deal," said Peter Millen, a Lincoln Park resident at the scene. "But to see that today, I was like 'Oh, god.' It looked like it collapsed."
What appeared to be an employee of the guard dog security company was seen carrying a Rottweiler away from the blaze in both arms around 7:15 a.m.
"The dog definitely looked exhausted," Millen said. "It was wet and, with the temperature, was somewhat frozen."
Millen said the dog was dazed and only slightly moving.
A spokeswoman for the guard dog company Attack K-9 Security said two dogs were taken to a vet Tuesday morning and both were doing fine.
Paul Biasco reports from the scene:
The school's location near the Armitage Brown and Purple Line CTA station caused the transportation agency to suspend service Tuesday morning, with Purple Line trains stopping at Howard, and Brown Line trains running only between Kimball and Fullerton, and in the Loop.
Shuttle service will be provided in the interim for connections between Fullerton and Clark/Lake, according to the CTA.
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