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Abandoned Mansion and Guest House Fire

Originally Published Apr 02, 2013 15:28 By JENNIFER TODD
Staff Writer

Though it stood as an eerie landmark for decades, the historic Gammache mansion along New Holland Pike in Manheim Township quickly vanished from the earth, burning to the ground in sensational fashion March 22.

With flames raging from the third floor of the 114-year-old home when fire units arrived, crews were instructed to allow the structure deemed unsafe to burn.

Firefighters stood back and watched as the grand old mansion crumbled to the ground.

But the decision to let the building burn wasn't made in the heat of the moment.

In fact, the determination not to allow firefighters to enter the building was made long before crews ever got the fire call.

According to Manheim Township Municipal Fire Chief Rick Kane, the property was on a fire department "Do Not Enter" list, indicating the structure was unsafe to enter.

The designation takes into account how long a property has been vacant, along with the age and integrity of the structure.

"In the case of the Gammache house, it's been vacant for at least five years boarded up, there's been no upkeep and you've had years of it exposed to weather," Kane said Monday. "There are too many unknowns as to what's going on in there. Firefighters have been killed in vacant houses where holes have been cut in the floor, roofs have been compromised and things like pipes or banisters have been taken.

"It comes down to risk versus benefit," Kane said. "We're not killing a firefighter going into a three-story house that isn't structurally sound.

"At the end of the day, the historical significance, I'm certainly not saying I don't care, but it doesn't matter. And I know that answer doesn't sit well with some people."

Kane also addressed questions about whether anyone could have been inside the home.

"It was vacant and boarded up," he said. "Anything's possible, yes, but there was no indication anyone was inside."

John Hershey, who lives on Pleasure Road, which borders the western edge of the property, has watched the property decline over the past decade.

"Within the last year especially. it's greatly deteriorated," he said, adding that the property has been vandalized multiple times.

Charter Homes, he said, erected "No Trespassing" signs and boarded up the buildings.

"But anyone who wanted to get in could," Hershey said. "It's unfortunate this landmark has just been allowed to be neglected. And now it's gone."

Charter Homes is in the process of purchasing the 45-acre Gammache tract from Lancaster Catholic High School and plans to build 54 single-family homes there.

Rebecca Fowler, spokeswoman for Charter Homes, said the mansion was set to be demolished later this year.

A day after the fire, Charter Homes, at the request of Lancaster Catholic, tore down what was left of the burned-out mansion and leveled the area, Fowler said.

A smaller building, the original house built in the 1730s, is the only structure remaining on the site.

Fire officials said the cause of the fire remains undetermined.

Manheim Township manager Mike Rimer said the Gammache mansion was listed as a Level Two historic property, which is "fairly significant," he said.

Still, Charter Homes likely would've been permitted to tear it down.

If a demolition request had been made, township commissioners would have been notified and a letter sent to the Historic Preservation Trust, which would have had 90 days to respond, Rimer said.

"They have that time to talk about how to preserve the property and come up with some alternatives," he said. "After 90 days we issue the permit so it more or less just delays the process."

On a personal note, Rimer said he noticed the Gammache property for the first time while driving by the site about a week before it burned down.

"For whatever reason, I never saw it sitting back there," he said. "It looked like it might be significant and I couldn't help but wonder what happened there, what was the story. A week later it was gone.

"I kind of think of it as an orphaned historic building that needed some love. But we lost it."

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