ANDOVER — An unoccupied but historic building on the Wood estate off North Main Street that dates to the wagon era was destroyed in what officials are calling a suspicious, 2-alarm fire last night.
The fire, which broke out around 7 p.m., proved a challenge to fight, with the building eventually collapsing amid the damage.
Firefighters were driving down North Main Street, returning to the station from another call, when they saw a cloud of smoke hanging over the roadway, Fire Chief Mike Mansfield said.
They began investigating and found flames coming out of the side of what was the former Poor's Wagon Shop, a 2 1/2-story wooden structure that faces a pond on the 63-acre estate.
"It was going pretty well by the time we got there," Mansfield said.
Rosalyn Wood, 75, who lives in a mansion at 276 North Main St. on the estate, transferred the development rights on 52 acres of the 63-acre property to the Trustees of Reservations in 2007.
She said the building that was on fire — known today as Arden Casino — hadn't been used in decades, but was considered historic.
Built in 1867, the structure was one of the few pre-industrial buildings left standing in Andover. Originally located across the street in what was then known as Frye Village, the precursor to Shawsheen Village, it was bought by the Wood family following the closure of the wagon and blacksmith business and relocated across the street to their estate in 1900.
"I'm quite upset," Wood said, adding that she believes the fire was set because there was no electricity in the building and because nobody lived there.
"There's no way it could start itself," she said. "I think somebody did it. We have had break-ins there over the years. Someone deliberately put a fire in the building. I guess the Fire Department will have to check that out."
Mansfield said it was too early to say whether the fire was set or not.
"It's hard to say at this point," he said. "When you have no utilities, it increases your suspicions. We've called the state fire marshal. They will do an investigation. Until then, it's just speculation."
Eventually the fire went to 2-alarms as trucks from Methuen were brought to the central station on North Main Street as back-up.
Because the building was set so far back off the road, and because some of the roads leading to it were blocked with snow, it took some time for enough trucks to get to the scene and for them to get a high volume of water onto the structure, Mansfield said.
"We were pumping from North Main Street, up a hill, to a pumper relay," he said.
At first, he said, firefighters did enter the building, but then, given the age and condition of the structure, attacked it from the outside. Nonetheless, he said his crews did a good job containing the fire.
The Red Cross reported about 60 first responders at the scene.
"The guys did a good job getting it knocked down," he said.
Rosalyn Wood said the building was in very poor condition.
"It was derelict," she said, adding that an architect looked at it recently and told her "it could not have been saved. It was going to be a tear-down anyway."
It is unclear what plans the Trustees of Reservations had for the building. The group's spokeswoman said last night she would issue a statement today.
Mansfield said he was sorry to see the building go.
"This whole area has seen a lot of history," he said. "It's a loss to the entire community."