By DOUG WILSON
Herald-Whig Senior Writer
A historic house at the corner of Fifth and Maple was gutted by fire Thursday afternoon as crowds gathered to watch the blaze.
Arson investigators will seek to establish what caused the fire in a building where no utilities were hooked up.
Toni and Neal Hemming owned the house and had hoped to rehabilitate the property for apartments. The Hemmings said it was a constant battle to secure the property, which had been a target for arsonists.
"We had previous arson attempts ... in February, but they were unsuccessful," Toni Hemming said.
"Kids were trying to light that (new addition) on fire. They were caught. It just so happened we were on premises when they actually were coming back to finish the thing," she said.
The Hemmings bought the building Dec. 31, and were planning to renovate it and put five living units on each floor, as well as four units in the north structure.
Neal Hemming said Charles and Anna Brown built the three-story house in 1877. It was a private residence at that time and was later left to Good Samaritan Home. An addition was built in 1910 and over the years the sprawling complex was used as a care facility and later as an apartment building. In recent years it had been vacant.
Jill Bowden, who lives across the street from the house at the corner of Fifth and Maple, was among the first to notice the fire.
"She thought her house was on fire because of all the smoke," said Shanna Willis, a cousin who lives on the corner of Fourth and Maple.
Willis watched from her back porch as the building burned. Her back yard was packed with onlookers she didn't know.
"I was hoping they would do something with it, get some cheap housing. I'm not really bummed out about it, but well it's been there a long time," Willis said.
Willis and Bowden said when they first saw the fire a little after 5 p.m. it was at the base of an elevator shaft on the south side of the building. Smoke was thick and wood walls and floors within the building caught fire quickly.
Firefighters called in additional units soon after reaching the scene. A fire truck with a water cannon was placed in an alley on the west side of the building, but had to move later as the heat and flames became intense after flames broke through most of the roof.
Smoke from the fire was visible for miles. People approaching Quincy along U.S. 24 in Missouri saw smoke and later could make out flames. Willis said her husband could smell smoke from the blaze when he was near Gem City Pizzeria at 18th and State.
Toni Hemming said the building is insured, but she would have preferred to rehabilitate the building and preserve some history.
"We had it all drawn up," Neal Hemming said.
The couple held hands near Fourth and Maple as they watched the blaze.
"I was down here this morning" checking on the property, Toni Hemming said.