It was supposed to be a monumental renovation project -- restoring the West Bank's historic Dania Hall to the thriving community center it once was.
But by Monday afternoon, all that remained of Dania Hall was a smoldering brick shell, surrounded by charred rubble and fire crews still dousing the structure's remnants.
By evening, the remaining wall segments were torn down into a pile of rubble and ash. Investigators were beginning their search for clues to the cause of the fire. No one was injured in the blaze.
The burning of Dania Hall marked the end of a Minneapolis landmark that had twice previously been marred by fire. The historical structure was not the only loss; the Cedar-Riverside community had invested more than $1.5 million in a building-renovation project intended to lead to the neighborhood's revitalization.
An array of organizations and businesses were lined up to potentially occupy the hall, including a pizza parlor and the Carlson Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.
Firefighters responded to calls from the Cedar-Riverside area at 1 a.m. Monday where they found all four floors of Dania Hall ablaze, with flames reaching 30 feet high. By 6 a.m., the fire had completely destroyed the building's interior and another adjacent building that contained five apartment units and an African clothing store. An Asian market next to the clothing store was also damaged.
Officials had evacuated residents in 60 apartments down the street from Dania Hall, said Minneapolis Fire Department spokesman Jerry Schmitz.
The four-alarm fire demanded almost 90 police, fire and hospital personnel, including half of the Minneapolis Fire Department's trucks, Schmitz said.
Although fire investigators are interviewing witnesses for leads, Schmitz said discovering the cause of the fire is going to be very difficult.
"In a particular situation where there is so much damage, they will either not be able to determine how it started -- which is very likely because (Dania Hall) is completely burned up -- or, if it is suspicious, it's going to get turned over to the police," Schmitz said.
As she watched crews finish dousing the last bit of smoldering rubble from the building Monday morning in front of cars that had been smashed by collapsed walls and debris, West Bank resident Charlotte Keck was saddened and, like many onlookers, somewhat perplexed.
Riverside Plaza security officials woke Keck at 3 a.m. to alert her and other residents to the nearby fire. When Keck first saw the flames, she noticed crews combatting the fire from the back of the building instead of from the front on Cedar Avenue.
"I couldn't figure it out," she said. "Why don't they have more water on this?"
Schmitz said he was unaware of exactly why the crews approached the building from the rear, but said the blazing building posed an "immediate collapse danger." Firefighters couldn't be within 30 feet of the hall for their own safety.
A devastated neighborhood
From his 16th-floor balcony across the street, early Monday morning Riverside Plaza resident Marvin Crawford watched the fire engulf Dania Hall and swallow the building next door.
"This is absolutely devastating," said Crawford, a West Bank resident since 1965. Crawford was hoping to start an amateur music night at Dania Hall, which was in the middle of a $2.7 million renovation project and a month away from having sprinklers installed.
More than half of the funding was provided by Cedar-Riverside neighborhood residents, who voted last year to spend half of their $3.1 million Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds to recreate the theater, meeting rooms and ground-level retail space that once comprised Dania Hall.
In August, workers began gutting and restoring Dania Hall, a nationally registered historical building constructed in 1886, as a community center for Scandinavian immigrants. The center offered meals, folk dancing and theater.
As the West Bank changed face, so did Dania Hall. In the 1960s, when counterculture thrived on the West Bank, the hall offered rock concerts and a cooperative store. But years later, the hall closed, and boards covered the windows.
For the past several years, groups interested in reviving the building had gone through the process of hiring contractors, presenting development ideas at community meetings and talking to developers. But in the end, the groups always came up short in funding.
"The neighborhood's willingness to spend half of their NRP dollars -- a million-and-a-half dollars -- on this one building is what finally enabled us to go ahead with the renovation," said Gar Hargens, an architect who has been trying for years to get the renovation project on track.
Six Carlson School of Management students conducted a study of Dania Hall in 1998 and determined it was economically feasible to open the building as a rental hall. The study helped define the benefits of Dania Hall's renovation.
"(It) showed that there was a demand for this kind of facility," said David Markle, a longtime West Bank resident.
Now the neighborhood will assess the potential to build a community center like the one they hoped for in Dania Hall. The neighborhood still has about half the funds dedicated to the Dania Hall project.
"There's still the NRP happening in the neighborhood, and there's still the increasing need for something to happen on Cedar Avenue," said Tim Mungaven, director of the West Bank Community Development Corporation.
Community groups will hold a neighborhood memorial service for Dania Hall in the next couple of days. For more information, call 673-0477.
Max Rust covers the community and agriculture and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.