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Live burn marks beginning of City Hall project

A 1920s era home that the City of Whiteville couldn’t give away went up in flames Saturday for a good cause.

The story-and-a-half bungalow in the middle of the 300 block of South Madison was packed with old pallets and straw bales Saturday morning as Whiteville firefighters hosted a controlled burn and training class for fellow emergency personnel from as far away as Oak Island, Leland and Horry County, S.C.

The home was a rental property for a number of years, according to city records, until it was purchased by the city in 2010. The lot abuts the City Hall property at Madison and Columbus, and the land was needed for future expansion. The structure itself was deemed not suitable for renovation into additional offices.

For several years, the city welcomed discussions on selling the home to be moved, but the height of the home meant dozens of utility lines would have to be taken down or raised while the home was moved through town. Estimates ranged from $80,000 to $100,000 just to move the utility lines, plus the actual transportation costs.

Then in 2014, mold forced the closure of the Horace Whitley City Hall building. The former U.S. Post Office had a mold problem in the basement for years, due to the decay of organic caulking and a high water table, but even after the basement was sealed the mold continued spreading through the building. City offices have been in a temporary suite in the Hill Plaza beside the Roses store since then.

Officials voted in February to demolish the Whitley building and build a new City Hall on the corner of Madison and Columbus streets. That meant the timeline for the empty home next door got markedly shorter.

After the city received a single sealed bid for the property – a bid that was later withdrawn – attempts were made to sell the house for a minimal fee to a responsible party who would dismantle the structure. That effort never gained traction.

The decision was made in August to add demolition and disposal of the home to the City Hall plan. Fire officials, in consultation with the new City Hall architects and the city, decided last month to burn the home as a training exercise Saturday.

The bitterly cold morning had its share of frigid rain as well as favorable winds.

“We really have good conditions for a burn like this,” said City Fire Marshal Hal Lowder. “The wind is right, and it isn’t likely to spread where we don’t want it to.”

Firefighters practiced a number of basic skills Saturday, including entering a burning structure, extinguishing fires in rooms and confined spaces, and other techniques. By Saturday night, the home was little more than a pile of charred timbers, ashes and fixtures that were too heavy to be salvaged before the burn.

“You hate seeing this happen to any old building,” Lowder said, “but at least this way we can get some good out of it. This isn’t the type of training we can offer our firefighters every day.”

City officials expect demolition of City Hall to begin within the next few weeks. Some architectural features, including signs honoring the late Mayor Whitley and the iconic federal eagle, have been removed from City Hall for preservation.

Stuart Rogers