Questions remain after former Belvedere orphanage goes up in smoke

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Questions remain after former Belvedere orphanage goes up in smoke

One day after flames destroyed a historic building — one that's stood for more than 100 years in St. John's — the cause of the fire remains unknown.

The former Belvedere Orphanage was a shell of its former self Saturday afternoon, with multiple police cars keeping watch on the building.

Cory Thorne, the vice president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Trust, says he has questions about how the fire started.

"It seems a bit odd. It's a brick building and there's nobody in there. I don't know if there was even any electricity going to it. It was well sealed up." he said.

"So it is interesting. Who knows how the fire started, hopefully there will be a thorough investigation on this property."

Thorne said the building played a key part in the history of St. John's.  

"This is a really important part of our heritage, both for the value of the property in terms of the architecture — being one of the few second empire institutional structures in our [city] — but also because of the historical associations with the building," he said.

Thorne said though it had been neglected for a while, the building helped write the history of how St. John's grew.

The property was built in the 1800s, operating as an orphanage for years, housing grade 8 and 9 students when Holy Heart of Mary High School for girls was full, and hosting administrative offices as well.

Most recently, it was operating as an MCP building but had been empty for several years.

NDP MHA recalls time as principal

NDP MHA Lorraine Michael spent four years as principal at Belevedere Central High School before the school closed in 1975.

She said she was upset to see the building go down like this.

"It had been an orphanage, for decades, and in the late 1960s the orphanage closed and the Roman Catholic School Board of St. John's rented the building from the Sisters of Mercy," said Michael.

"It was a beautiful old had all this old wood, [with a] beautiful staircase in the centre."

In recent years, as developers debated putting condos up, Michael said she worried for the building's future.

"How often have I said to myself, 'Some day, there's going to be a fire here, because people are going to be coming into this building and just hanging out or whatever,'" she said.

"I've always felt something like this was going to happen. So I'm very sad it has happened."

Future uncertain

For the past number of years, the building has been empty. It was registered to a numbered company, the sole director of which is businessman Craig Williams, the owner of Skymark Homes and Future Group companies.

In 2014, the city voted to allow the developer to build a residential condominium on the site. Though building permits were approved, there has been no activity since 2016.

Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officials said Saturday a preliminary investigation into the fire is now in the hands of the fire investigations unit, but that it's still too early to say if the fire is suspicious.

As of Saturday evening, Williams had not responded to a CBC News request for comment.