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Posted on Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 10:14 a.m.

Large fire guts historic building in Ypsilanti's Depot Town; officials label fire 'suspicious'

By Lee Higgins


A Superior Township Fire Department ladder truck sprays water into one of the windows of a warehouse on the corner of Cross and River Streets in Ypsilanti's Depot Town that caught fire early this morning.

Lon Horwedel |

Updated at 10:10 a.m.

A massive historic building that was under renovation in Ypsilanti's Depot Town was gutted in an early morning fire that appears suspicious, city fire officials say.

The cause of the blaze remains under investigation, but Ypsilanti Fire Inspector John Roe said it doesn't appear to be accidental.

“I don’t suspect this fire started by accident,” he said. “Accidental fires of this nature would not burn that quickly.”

A damage estimate is not yet available this morning. No injuries were reported.

Firefighters from several departments were at the scene for hours.

The fire broke out at about 1:40 a.m. at the Thompson Block at northeast corner of Cross and River streets, across from the Sidetrack Bar and Grill in Depot Town. Firefighters said they were on the scene in minutes, but an exact response time was not available this morning.

Flames were shooting from the building when crews arrived, and they called for help from firefighters in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti Township, Pittsfield Township and Superior Township.

Ypsilanti fire officials said the building, which was being remodeled for lofts and retail space, was significantly damaged. Part of the building's roof collapsed, officials said.

Fire inspectors have not yet been able to enter the building to assess the damage and investigate. They're awaiting approval from engineers to get inside the structure, officials said.

The building, which had electricity running to it, was boarded up and locked, investigators said. Authorities received no reports of any suspicious activity in the area. 

The $3.5 million renovation project on the building started in 2006. Officials said all three floors were being renovated, and construction tools, plywood and other items were inside.


Ypsilanti City Council member Pete Murdock took this photo of the fire this morning.

Photo courtesy of Pete Murdock

According to the Ypsilanti building department, permits for work in the building expired April 29; no one was authorized to work on site after that date. Fire officials said they received reports that workers were in the building as recently as Friday; it's unclear whether they were working or the nature of any ongoing work in the building.

Owner Stewart Beal told last month that he hoped to relaunch construction on the property and reopen his leasing office by Sept. 1.

Beal acquired the building in May 2006 for $346,186; it's in a tax-free development zone.

Beal, reached on the scene this morning, said he’d been at the site since 3:30 a.m. He described the damage as “complete and total.” “This is a major, major fire in two-thirds of the building,” he said, describing the roof and interior destruction behind the wall that remains standing. But he said the entire building isn't damaged: “One-third is like it was yesterday.” Beal has at least 20 employees of his construction company on-site this morning, evaluating the condition and securing the property. “We’re analyzing (damage) and scrambling to make sure the rest of the building doesn’t fall,” Beal said.

Beal declined to comment on the fire investigation or whether work was occurring on the property without the necessary permits.


Firefighters used aerial trucks to pour water on the large blaze.

Photo courtesy of Gary Urick

Ypsilanti City Council member Pete Murdock, who lives near the scene, called the blaze a setback for plans to revitalize the neighborhood.

“People were looking forward to that building being renovated," he said. "It was an empty eyesore basically. Nobody wants vacant buildings, especially large ones that dominate the landscape.”

Murdock said he had hoped after the building was renovated, it would attract more people to Depot Town.

Howard Bowen, 48, could see the fire as he was standing outside the Ypsilanti District Library's branch on Michigan Avenue about 1:45 a.m., he said.

"I walked down and flames were shooting out the roof, out the windows," he said this morning.

Mary Potts, owner of Potts Studio, a photography studio in Depot Town, said it's tragic that a fire broke out at the historic building, but it's fortunate the building was empty.

"Hopefully, it is insured and will be taken care of," Potts said.

The fire appears to have started on the second floor of the vacant three-story building, said Ypsilanti City Fire Capt. Max Anthouard.'s Paula Gardner and Amalie Nash contributed to this report.

Check back for updates to this developing story.


Jim Pryce

Thu, Sep 24, 2009 : 12:31 p.m.

Tear it down. It's been a eyesore as far back as I can remember back in the 70's.


Thu, Sep 24, 2009 : 6:19 a.m.

@weakyknee, I agree that there are buildings worth preserving. No Doubt. This isn't one of them. Great history - certainly. I came here in 1982 - it was a scary place then, its deteriorated from there. Rehab effort after rehab effort. Do you know what you get when you polish a...? That applies to this situation. Again, I respect Mr. Beal's efforts, I just don't think the bones of that thing were truly all that solid. I also agree that historic commissions have a place. I disagree that they are essential to Ypsilanti's growth. By definition, they are in the way of progress - in some cases, that check and balance is good. In others, its just in the way. I know these are hard working people. But its Ypsilanti. I think we'd all do better of we spend a little more time looking forward with a little less white knuckled grip on keeping the past with us. History is part, future is unlimited.

Mike Ambs

Thu, Sep 24, 2009 : 12:15 a.m.

Here's one of the photo-stitches I took earlier from inside the buiilding... very sad: It's hard to tell from the front just how bad the internal damage is. The whole structure has been gutted out.

The Picker

Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 7:13 p.m.

The last several times I passed the building, the boards that covered the windows had been pulled off and not replaced. With poor security and low activity levels at the site, it becomes an attractive nuisance, waiting for bad things to happen. It too bad that more attention was not paid to the whole preservation project.

Mike Ambs

Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 3:34 p.m.

@Murf :P Uhm... I'm about to upload everything I took today online. It's kinda' gonna be obvious I was inside. Just saying. Video is still importing - had to restart due to my hard-drive being full. It's very sad to see this footage though... the place is just a mess. A complete mess. @a2grateful: I really don't think many people have been in there. For as long as I've lived here, it's been boarded up pretty hard-core. About the only real view you could get was peaking over the tops of windows... or squinting through the dirty windows on the front doors. I've never seen an easy way.


Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 2:57 p.m.

Given the trespassing admissions, it is evident that people from the neighborhood gain easy access to the property for their own amusement and purposes. It therefore appears that a possible cause of the fire could have been accidental, and caused by a trespasser.


Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 2:44 p.m.

Why Mike, if you saw these exposed wires and unsafe conditions before, why did you not report it? Because that would mean you were trespassing and could be in trouble for it or for some other reason?

Mike Ambs

Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 2:16 p.m.

@Alan Goldsmith: Ha... ok. I'm sick then. Is the author of this article sick as well? I felt uneasy about saying what I'd seen, and the conversation I'd had with a neighbor of the building, until I came back here and saw that the fire department also said they we're "suspicious". I didn't mean to say that Beal himself intentionally set fire to the Thompson Building... that would be a bit of a stretch. He's done a lot for this community. But that's not to say it was an awesome idea to leave a bunch of exposed lights, all connected with old, tangled, raw-wire exposed, duct-taped extension cords through the basement, main floor and all upstairs. So yes. That's what I saw numerous times peaking over the boards covering the windows. Those strange wires are what I took photos of today after being told by a construction worker that he "would never use cords like this in a building this size. It's not safe". And of course I had no permission to be inside the building. The whole building is still smoking and obviously unsafe. You want to lecture me on trespassing, then knock yourself out. But it's a damn shame that building is in the shape it's in today - and regardless of the consequences I was going to extensively document it. Because for all I know, the whole structure could be bull-dozed to the ground by next month. Gone forever.

Alan Goldsmith

Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 12:13 p.m.

"I find it hard to imagine this massive fire was caused by anything other than unsafe use of lights and extension cords. I have been to that building several times (after dark), since JC Beal has been working on it, and *every* time there was a maze of exposed light bulbs and old, duct-taped yellow extension cords with frayed wire visible left on 24/7." Great, so you had the owner's permission to enter the building after hours? What makes you think you don't have to respect private property? Becaue you have a camera? Or you think you can be a fire investigator? Slandering the owner or even implying this was his fault is just pathetic and sick. But I guess if you have a camera, it's ok.

Trek Glowacki

Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 11:07 a.m.

the above mentioned New Yorker article:

Trek Glowacki

Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 10:57 a.m.

Before we jump on another "swan wagon" and start looking for arsonists where none may exist let's remember to Hanlon's razor: never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. The root cause of The Great Swantrovsy ( was the ludicrous credence the articles gave to the concept of a mad swam killer on the loose. Here we are again, starting with the assumption that malicious human agency is definitely to blame. In the same article we have the suspicion that the fire is arson because of how quickly it burned, and yet "fire inspectors have not yet been able to enter the building to assess the damage and investigate." The New Yorker ran a great article about a death sentence carried out because of just this type of belief in arson mythology. A great quote from the article: "Hurst was also struck by Vasquezs claim that the Willingham blaze had "burned fast and hot" because of a liquid accelerant. The notion that a flammable or combustible liquid caused flames to reach higher temperatures had been repeated in court by arson sleuths for decades. Yet the theory was nonsense: experiments have proved that wood and gasoline-fuelled fires burn at essentially the same temperature."

Mike Ambs

Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 10:33 a.m.

I just spent over 2 hours inside the old Thompson Building - I snuck inside through the back (which is soon going to be very hard, as they are currently fencing it off). I recorded over an hour and a half of HD footage, and took as many photos as I could. Seeing that this post has been updated to say official have labeled the fire as "suspicious", I feel it's not out of line to comment that: I find it hard to imagine this massive fire was caused by anything other than unsafe use of lights and extension cords. I have been to that building several times (after dark), since JC Beal has been working on it, and *every* time there was a maze of exposed light bulbs and old, duct-taped yellow extension cords with frayed wire visible left on 24/7. I took photos and video today of these exposed, unsafe wires in a part of the building that wasn't damaged by fire. While inside, another man, who lived nearby the Thompson building, came in with me through the back. We were both following the extension cords and what-was-left of the hanging light bulbs. He said he's worked construction for some time, and the wires they were using inside were no were safe. Not good.

Sven Gustafson

Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 10:08 a.m.

Oh no! Doesn't that building have a connection to the old Tucker automobile company?


Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 9:17 a.m.

I would have loved to see the old building renovated, but now that it it burned up, it should be removed. The building was an eyesore, regardless of what it represents, or what it was used for 100 years ago. Take some pictures, write a book about it, and tear that ugly building down. Ypsi is raggedy enough. We don't need another 3 story rat trap around here.


Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 8:37 a.m.

Mike Ambs, let me be clear: I support rehabbing historical structures 100%, and would have preferred to see this one restored as well. Given the new reality of a burned-out shell, the next best thing is to build something new that will fit within the character of the neighborhood. Maybe the facade can be recovered, ala the Carnegie library facade from the old Frieze building.

Mike Ambs

Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 7:35 a.m.

Okay... I just read some of the comments here, and regarding Lori, Cash, and IheartYpsi: your comments make me very, very sad. I'm sorry you saw this building as an "eye sore" - but the reality is that building is and always should be one of Ypsi's oldest and most interesting buildings. Period. There is a very rich and interesting history in this town - and lately, over the last several months, I've been spending time on the weekends learning about it - it makes me almost angry people could so easily and lazily write off that structure as something that needed to be replaced with new lofts. If this city listened to people like yourselves - Depot Town wouldn't exist today.

Mike Ambs

Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 7:29 a.m.

This is awful :( Erica Hampton and I have been researching this building at the Historical Society the last few weeks... it's one of the oldest and most interesting buildings in this entire city. I heading over there in an hour to take video and pictures... I want to know what their plans are for the building. There's no way anyone should be allowed to tear it down.


Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 7:28 a.m.

I lived two houses down from the Civil War barracks building for several years. It always pleased me to see workmen working on it and I was really looking forward to seeing it transformed into a new hub in Depot Town, with businesses and apartments. I hope the owner is able to rescue the historic shell and make some of this happen: I would hate to see the whole thing come down and replaced with some hideous new prefab structure instead. That building is a part of the neighborhood and I'd hate to see it go. Fingers crossed that the walls can be saved and the project can go ahead!


Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 7:18 a.m.

With all due respect to lorie and the other commenters who mentioned building a new energy efficient building, rehabbing old buildings is far and away more efficient than razing an old building and constructing a new one, even if the new one has all the LEED certification in the world. Also, the 'hysteric commission' works very hard to do what's best for Ypsi's character and may not like that process but it's essential to the community's growth. Big bummer that this project may not come to fruition. :(


Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 6:51 a.m.

So sorry we'll never get to see this restoration, but agree that there is a silver lining. Hope to see new energy efficient urban lofts and retail space (re)built with an historically appropriate design. Best wishes to you, Stewart.


Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 6:31 a.m.

Mr. Beal, we know how hard you have worked at investing and rehabilitating Ypsilanti. The community I think has a lot of respect for you for those efforts. I hope that you can hang in there and continue the fight. It is a truly necessary thing, the keeping of Depot Town. We will be thinking good thoughts for you, and your efforts. Caitlin A. Phillips


Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 5:58 a.m.

The building has been an eyesore all of my 65 years of life.....I hope it's now razed and the land made available for something suitable for the users of the new Amtrak depot. I embrace the concept of preservation of historic buildings, but that building was not something worth saving. The cost of making it ADA compliant and energy friendly would be prohibitive. I look forward to seeing the building razed.


Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 5:40 a.m.

With all due respect to Mr. Beal and the work he has done in Ypsi (I appreciate all that). I think this has a significant silver lining: rehab on this building must have been hell - it was in terrible shape and had been for, well, decades. A new building, from the foundation up, might be both financially and physically more sound than the rehab. Plus the energy efficiency of a new building will be soo much better. I don't know if this building was in a historic district but if that gets him out of having to deal with the hysteric commission that would be a plus too.


Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 5:29 a.m.

Very sad... this project was viewed as a great enhancement to Depot Town : (