Porterdale history engulfed in flames
As flames burst through windows and ravaged both steel and wood inside the Porterdale gymnasium Thursday night, citizens watched in a dazed stupor as decades of memories went up with the blaze.
Built as a gift to the city by Oliver Porter — Porterdale’s namesake — in 1938, the Porter Memorial Gymnasium was more than a place to play basketball; it was the cornerstone of the self-contained community.
Designed by architect Ellamae Ellis League, it was one of the first buildings in the state to be conceived by a woman during a time when
“acceptable” professional roles for women were usually limited to teaching school or running a boarding house. The building originally acted as a gymnasium for Porterdale schools, holding sporting events, pageants and plays.
But it was more than that, according to Rebecca Roseberry, president of the Porterdale Historical Society. It was a community building, a center where all of the citizens were welcome.
For many years, the gym served as home of the town Christmas party, and it housed a mammoth tree under which presents for all of the children in town were laid. The women’s club met there, as did the garden club. Even younger children ate their lunch in the building at one time.
“They need special equipment, so it could be mid-day Monday before the investigation continues,” said Glen Allen, public relations directors for the State Insurance and Fire Commissioner’s Office. “It’s way too early to tell if it was intentionally set, or if it’s related to other incidents in the area.”
The commissioner’s office dispatched the state fire marshal to the scene at the request of the county.
“We show up whenever our assistance is required,” Allen said. “Especially in smaller cities such as Porterdale or Covington.”
Porterdale city manager Tom Fox said the historic building was being used for storage. The power had been shut off for at least a year.
“The electricity was off... there was no power going to that building, and I don’t think there was anything in there to cause it to spontaneously combust,” said Rebecca Roseberry, who was heavily involved with the planned renovation of the gymnasium as president of the Porterdale Historical Society. “There was nothing in there hooked up, connected or stored to cause a fire that I am aware of.”
Although the state fire officials have not declared this a case of arson, they are asking anyone with information regarding such criminal activity to call the arson hotline at 1 (800) 2825804.
A reward of up to $10,000 is offered for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of an arsonist via the hotline.
“If it was set intentionally, [the suspects] need to spend the rest of their lives in jail with no parole, because they have no idea what they have done,” Roseberry said. “It can be replaced, but it will only be a copy. They have taken a part of a lot of people’s lives. They have no clue what they’ve destroyed or harmed. It’s a lot more than brick or mortar.”