YORK -- A developer will forge ahead with plans to transform the old Lockmore Cotton Mill into apartments for the elderly, despite a massive blaze that destroyed most of the building.
"It was a beautiful building that we wanted to preserve," said Mike Massoglin of Landmark Development in Winston-Salem, N.C. "In the absence of that, we still want to move forward with creating the affordable housing that's so sorely needed for seniors."
Only a right-side wing and some outer walls were saved when the century-old mill on Hunter Street burned to the ground Thursday night. It was York's biggest fire in a decade, drawing some 50 firefighters from York, Clover and Newport.
Because the flames spread so quickly, crews opted to let the building burn, York Fire Chief Domenic Manera said. Their goal: To save as much water as possible given the region's drought conditions.
No cause determined
Firefighters returned Friday to put out smoldering hot spots. State investigators spent much of the day taking pictures and investigating a cause, which still hasn't been determined.
Despite efforts to save water, 200,000 to 300,000 gallons were used to control the flames, said Charles Helms, interim city manager.
Although it's surrounded by dozens of old mill homes, the burned-out shell does not pose any health threats because it was made of wood and contained no chemicals, Manera said.
The fire produced a thick, black cloud of smoke. But because there was no wind, flames went straight up and neighbors did not need to be evacuated, he said.
Mill destined for rebirth
The mill was in the midst of a $5.7 million restoration as an apartment complex for seniors called Hunters Bay, said Ryan Toblin, project manager with Rehab Builders, a subsidiary of Landmark Group.
The company has headed up several local historic rehabilitation projects, including the Rose Hotel on Congress Street in York and the former Highland Park mill in Rock Hill.
Crews had been working at the mill since February, cleaning it out and stabilizing the structure. There was no electricity in the building.
About six Rehab Builder employees and five day laborers were working at the site on Thursday prior to the fire, Toblin said. The crew left between 5:30 and 6 p.m. The fire started shortly after 7.
Workers didn't report seeing anything unusual before they left, said Manera and Toblin.
The building was insured, and Landmark hopes to continue to develop the site into about 40 apartments for seniors.
"We are committed to make a project work on that spot because there is a need," Massoglin said.
Landmark had planned on paying for the project with low-income tax credits and historic property tax credits. The company hasn't determined whether it'll be eligible for historic property tax credits now that the building is gone.
However, Landmark has experience with both new and rehabilitative work, Massoglin said.
"The key is to make the most appealing living place for seniors, whether that is with the renovation of an old structure or construction of something new on the same footprint," he said.
A historic loss
Many in York are saddened by the loss of the building, which has long been a landmark for the Hunter Street community and all of York.
"It just breaks my heart," Helms said. "It was a beautiful historical building."
Dozens watched as firefighters doused the flames.
Tanya Knight was coming out of a meeting at the school district office when she saw smoke.
"We saw this big puff of black smoke, so we knew whatever it was, was big," she said. "It wasn't just a house fire."
It seemed like the whole town was trying to get to the fire, she said.
Michael Childers has lived down the street from the mill for 50 years. His grandparents worked there when it was thriving.
"This was a mill village right here. That was their livelihood," he said. "I hate to see the old mill go."
A centerpiece of York's past
The Lockmore Mill was one of York's first textile mills. It started around 1903 as a place to turn cotton into cloth, said York Mayor Eddie Lee, who teaches history at Winthrop University.
It was one of four mills that operated in the area at the time. It also became the first to close in 1963, he said. The mill was more than just an economic anchor for the city, he said.
For many, it was the center of life.
"Their whole lives revolved around that mill," Lee said. "That was their town. They had their own store. They went to schools with other mill people. It was kind of a self-contained village."
All that remains now is smoldering rubble, and memories.