Firefighters from several cities converged on Downtown DeLand April 29 to fight a blaze at the historic Hotel Putnam that threatened ongoing renovations there.
A call about the fire to 911 came in from a passer-by at 8:56 p.m., according to DeLand Fire Chief Daniel Hanes, and the first crew was on the scene at 225 W. New York Ave. four minutes later.
The fire appeared to have started in the back of the hotel on the ground floor, and climbed up to the sixth floor, scorching the exterior in back and producing dramatic flames as it consumed wooden window frames and roof members.
On May 2, the DeLand Fire Department and area residents were still awaiting results of an investigation of the fire by the State Fire Marshal’s Office. Fire Chief Hanes cautioned against speculation about the cause or origin of the blaze. He said the fire is being treated as suspicious, because the building is vacant and did not have electric service.
The Hotel Putnam’s new owner, Orlando resident Mohamed Rashad, told The Beacon his crews had been working on demolition inside the building six days a week for two weeks before the blaze, in preparation for creating apartments. Rashad said the building is insured.
Fire Chief Hanes said the investigation will likely take a few more days, and it will involve looking for signs the fire was set intentionally. Arson dogs will be used to sniff for accelerants, and officials will investigate to see if any people were in the building at the time of the fire.
Hanes said the reason it took DeLand firefighters four minutes to get to the hotel — which sits about 750 feet away from the city’s main fire station — is because firefighting units were out responding to other calls.
Hanes said his staff were responding to a fire-alarm call and a report of another fire when the call came about the Putnam. Crews had to return to the station to get the city’s tower truck before responding.
By just after 11 p.m. Sunday, the fire appeared largely under control, but crews remained on the scene and vigilant.
Tower trucks had battled a stubborn blaze, with the DeLand Fire Department spraying from the back and the Deltona Fire Department attacking from the New York Avenue side of the building.
On Monday, April 30, Hanes said firefighters had been able to safely enter the building and search every room. He said no one was injured in the fire.
In addition to DeLand and Deltona, firefighting units from Volusia County Fire Services, Orange City and New Smyrna Beach were on the scene. Hanes said 37 firefighters were involved.
Because the flames were intensely raging inside the historic building when firefighters arrived on-scene, Hanes said, the fire was fought from a defensive position, meaning firefighters did not enter the building Sunday night — in part due to concerns about the stability of the structure.
Instead, crews on the ground and above in ladder trucks sprayed water into the building, in a bid to extinguish the inferno.
Hanes said the fire was largely brought under control Sunday night, but crews remained through Monday morning to tamp down on any remaining hot spots that might be smoldering.
A crowd gathered to watch firefighters at work Sunday night, congregating on the steps of DeLand City Hall, as police cordoned off the area bounded by Florida and Clara avenues to the east and west, and New York and Rich avenues on the south and north.
Rashad came to the scene Sunday night and spoke with officials from the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
Opening in 1923 and billed as “fireproof,” the Hotel Putnam replaced the wooden Putnam Inn, which burned down in 1921.
DeLandite Dorothy Brown, who was on the scene Sunday night, is the widow of Robert H. Brown, whose family owned and operated the Hotel Putnam for decades. Dot Brown told the story of an infamous guest at the hotel during its glory days, who smoked and had set a mattress or two on fire during his stays.
Eventually, Brown said, the hotel staff required him to stay in the western tower extending up from the sixth floor, reasoning that that location, isolated from the main hotel, would be safer for the rest of the guests.
The western tower was part of the area heavily affected by Sunday’s fire.
Lake Helen resident Lewis Long noted that the Hotel Putnam, along with Stover Theater, the Conrad complex and the old DeLand City Hall, were all built with sand brick produced by the Bond Sandstone Brick Co. of Lake Helen.
The local brick’s trademark, Long said, was its ability to stand up to fire.
DeLand had another large structure fire just two days earlier, at The Lighthouse Church.
On Friday, the church’s education building was engulfed in flames, after a maintenance worker accidentally set off a fire in the building’s attic.
Then, on May 1, fire destroyed a two-story home in the Country Club neighborhood on DeLand’s south side. The cause of that fire is still under investigation.
Earlier in April, on the 2nd, fire consumed an abandoned internet gambling cafe at 2702 N. Woodland Blvd., between DeLand and DeLeon Springs.