A stubborn and now suspicious three-alarm fire, authorities say, burned through a century-old, two-story building at 14 Pleasant St. Friday morning, largely gutting a structure that housed Patricia Schlichte Johnstone's first-floor law office and the second-story apartment she shared with her husband, city assessor Gary Johnstone.
Flames burst from the roof shortly after 9 a.m. and endangered both the 2-year-old BankGloucester building, separated from the flames only by a fire wall to the south, and a row of 100-year-old brick buildings that house a reading room and two fine-art galleries in the short block up to Middle Street.
Mayor Carolyn Kirk said the fire was deemed suspicious almost immediately after fire apparatus arrived at the scene, which was cordoned off until after noon.
The Massachusetts State Police criminal investigations unit was called in by 9:30 a.m., while the fire was fully engaged.
State Fire Marshal's investigators were working inside the building at nightfall. Gloucester police Detective Steve Mizzoni said the investigation was just beginning, and declined to speculate on the cause.
Gary Johnstone, one firefighter and four police officers suffered minor injuries or smoke inhalation.
Johnstone said he was up for work about 6 a.m. The assessors work in the City Hall basement a 2-minute walk from the couple's upstairs apartment with high ceilings.
"I went downstairs and smelled smoke," he said.
He then yelled up to his wife, "It's your office. We've got to get out of here."
Six pumpers, four ladder trucks, a rescue squad, about 40 firefighters and dozens of police officers were involved in fighting, knocking down and bringing the blaze under control. Mutual aid was provided to the city by Manchester, Ipswich, Rockport, Essex and Beverly fire departments, Capt. Barry Appt said.
BankGloucester was evacuated for safety reasons and closed for the day, although online banking was business as usual. The bank is scheduled to open at 8:30 a.m. this morning.
Leading the firefighting effort, by coincidence, was Deputy Fire Chief Miles Schlichte, Schlichte-Johnstone's brother.
Appt said the fire broke out shortly after 6 a.m. and was under control about seven hours later. He said it was the most serious in Gloucester in more than three years — since the Lorraine Apartments complex exploded in flames, killing one tenant, in December 2007, less than two blocks to the west of the Schlichte-Johnstone building,
Like the Lorraine blaze, which caught onto and also leveled the adjacent Temple Ahavat Achim, firefighters on Pleasant Street fought Friday to contain the blaze to the Schlichte-Johnstone Building, which also house the office of a certified public account, Philpott Doyle & Co.
"It was a building of ordinary construction, wood inside, lot of voids," said Appt. "It just started cooking, between first and second floor ... It blew up ... a major concern was whether we could control it, keep from taking over the whole street. It was a very stubborn fire."
Kirk, who watched the fire from the street, said firefighters were able to remove many antiques and works of fine art from the Raymond Agler Gallery to storage in the Cape Ann Historical Museum just up and across Pleasant Street from the locus of the fire.
Agler and his partner, Jack Carter, could not be reached, but Roger Armstrong, who owns the State of the Art gallery at the corner of Pleasant and Middle streets, said the Agler Gallery had developed a specialization in fine 19th century paintings.
Armstrong said his gallery of fine local paintings and many schools of art suffered only smoke damage.
He praised the firefighters for their success in containing and then killing the fire.
"We're grateful to everyone," he added.
The building, according to city records, was erected in the first decade of the 20th century, and often was a combination of business and residential, as it was Friday.
In the 1940s it held an apartment and a clothing store and a retail shop. It was also used as the Fishermen's Union hall in the 1960s.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or at email@example.com.