Inspectors will be in an historic building in Grinnell today to assess the damage from a fire that broke out in the structure late Friday. The turn-of-the-century building, originally a car factory, was being converted into a museum. Chuck Brooke, the executive director of the Iowa Transportation Museum, says the fire could have been much worse.

“We hadn’t started any new construction inside the building and this just kind of pushed the demolition of things along a little more aggressive than what we had planned,” Brook says. Grinnell Fire Chief Dan Sicard says workmen started the fire.

“They were cutting and doing some grinding on some steel in the building — they were doing some cutting with a torch — and it started a fire inside the floor joist area,” Sicard says. “They had wet down the area and thought they had it under control. But when they left for the day, they left one man on a fire watch and by the time he noticed, it was already spread all the way across the floors and broken out through the floor into the rooms.”

The fire chief says it’s difficult to make a damage assessment because the structure was under renovation. “I think the biggest cost loss is going to be from the delay in construction and possibly whether or not the new steel roof had any heat damage to it or not,” Sicard says. “There was a couple a good-sized holes — the size of the fire truck burned in the second-floor floor and a smaller hole in the first floor, so the floors are kind of burned out, so there’s a good amount of damage.”

The museum director says initial inspections indicated the building was still structurally sound. “I thank the Grinnell Fire Department for their prompt response because they saved the day for us and we’re going to be able to get back on schedule here relatively soon with a lot of clean-up involved, but we’ll be up and going again,” Brook says. “They caught it in the nick of time.”

The fire-damaged facility was home to a factory that made Spaulding automobiles from 1909 to 1916. Construction began this summer to convert the building into a museum. In the auto industry’s early years, there were nearly 50 different brands of cars being made in Iowa. Fred Duesenberg, a key figure in the country’s auto industry, drove his Mason car up the steps of the Iowa capitol in 1906 to prove it was a “hill climber”. And there are stories suggesting the first electric car was made in Iowa and driven in a parade in Des Moines — in 1890.

By Chris Johnson, KGRN, Grinnell