Knoxville Fire Department investigating structure fire at Knoxville College

Fire at Robert H Harvey college center building. (Knoxville Fire Department)
Fire at Robert H Harvey college center building. (Knoxville Fire Department)

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – Thick plumes of smoke could be seen for miles as firefighters worked to extinguish a fire on Knoxville College’s campus.

D.J. Corcoran with Knoxville Fire Department said they received a report of a fire at around 10:30 a.m. at the Robert H. Harvey College Center building. He said most of the fire was contained to the right side of the building.

Firefighters brought in a ladder truck to fight the fire, one wall was torn down and Corcoran said there was heavy smoke damage throughout the building. He said there is no electricity to the building and the classroom and common area are boarded up.

There were no injuries and Corcoran said no one was inside the building when firefighters arrived. The cause of the fire is still under investigation. Corcoran said at this point they’re not sure if the fire was arson or accidental, but they think the fire may have been started by someone inside the building overnight.

Crews battled the fire Friday morning.

The last class graduated from Knoxville College in May 2015. Administrators said they planned to reopen the college, but so far no plans have been made and many of the buildings are boarded up.

In 2015 the historic school was placed on the top of the “Fragile 15” list of endangered places in Knox County. Knox Heritage says the situation there continues to dramatically deteriorate, with several buildings either condemned or suffering from lack of maintenance.

Corcoran said there have been five fires at the college this year and 20 since the closed. Friday’s fire was the largest of the fires.

“I’ve seen a couple of the aftermath of the fires. A lot of them were smaller, started in the grass,” said Breyauna Holloway.

She lives across the street from Knoxville College and was watching as firefighters worked to put out the flames Friday.

“It’s sadness, that’s the first thing. This campus, this school, this entire community has a lot of history behind it,” Holloway said.

The campus has been sitting in disrepair for years, and many neighbors like Holloway wish something would be done.

“I think the city and state should just come together and turn this into something that’ll be a benefit not only to Mechanicsville, but to the city and the state as a whole,” Holloway said.

Knoxville College was founded in 1875 as part of the missionary effort of the United Presbyterian Church of North America.

Previous story: Will historic Knoxville College reopen?

Knoxville College Board of Trustees Chairman James Reese issued a statement Tuesday:

We are working with the Fire and Police Departments to determine additional steps in reference to vandalism and fires of buildings on campus. These incidents have continued to impede our efforts to resume offering classes at our institution. We will not let this most recent incident prevent us from taking steps to ensure a future for our beloved institution. Knoxville College has had a rich history since 1875 and its Board and alumni are working together to secure its future.

Building failed inspections

The City of Knoxville inspected the Robert H. Harvey College Center building on May 19 and found it was violation of city and international building code. The inspection noted problems with exterior walls, roofing and rafters, exterior doors, electric service, plumbing service, and HVAC service.

On May 27, an order was issued stating the building was out of compliance with codes, an attractive nuisance, and dangerous to the health and safety of the public. The owner was ordered to immediately rehabilitate the structure and signs were to be put up saying the building was not fit for human habitation.

“The property constitutes an unfit dwelling within… Knoxville City Code and is unfit for human habitation,” read the order. “… the building is so damaged, decayed, dilapidated, unsanitary, unsafe, and/or vermin-infested that it creates a serious hazard to the health and safety of the occupants or the public, and lacks illumination, ventilation, or sanitation facilities adequate to protect the health or safety of the occupants or the public.”

“As the fire this morning demonstrated, vacant and blighted properties create hazards to the community,” said Communications Director Jesse Fox Mayshark. “We are contacting both the lien holder on the property and representatives of Knoxville College to discuss realistic next steps in dealing with their vacant properties.”

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