The owner of the historic building that once housed the Strawbridge Home for Boys in Eldersburg planned to renovate the structure and donate the basement space to his son’s robotics club — until a fire burned it down Friday.
In an interview Tuesday, Eldersburg resident Chantana Lim, 51, said he bought the building five or six years ago from its previous owner and inherited a few tenants living in the apartments. Two or three years ago, he closed the building so it could be renovated. The building was served by one electric meter, and he wanted to split it up so each tenant could be responsible for the electricity they used in their living space.
The Strawbridge Home for Boys opened in 1924 and provided a home to hundreds of boys until it closed in the late 1950s.
On the day of the fire, Lim said, he was there with two other parents from his son’s high school robotics club. The club was searching for a new home, and Lim thought the basement might suit them. He and the parents explored the basement with flashlights — Lim cut off the electricity long ago, after the past tenants moved out — surveying the space for possible use.
Lim estimates they left at about 6:20 p.m. for a robotics meeting. About two hours later, he got a call that the building was on fire.
“All three of us were shocked,” Lim said.
Lim did not have insurance for the building, he said. He’d been waiting for an architect to finish drawings for the renovation. Lim was going to submit his plans to the county for approval.
Although the home wasn’t Lim’s primary source of income, as he runs a local gas station, he felt the loss of the building and hasn’t gone to survey the damage since the fire was extinguished.
“It’s been too much,” he said.
The Office of the State Fire Marshal estimated the structure loss to be $500,000, and its contents at $10,000.
Lim said he suspects the cause of the fire was arson, though he didn’t see anything suspicious when he was there earlier that day. According to Oliver Alkire, assistant public information officer for the fire marshal’s office, as of Wednesday that office is still investigating the cause of the fire and they have not ruled out arson as a potential cause.
Neighbors reported hearing a “small explosion” coming from the property, and the fire marshal’s office is looking into the source of this noise and whether they were related to the fire, Alkire said. Officials were out all day Saturday investigating the remains of the fire, according to Alkire.
Lim said he has had trouble in the past with people trespassing on the property. He boarded up the door and locked it, but someone pried it open. Lim has discovered broken windows and graffiti inside the building.
He’d communicated his concerns to the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, which caught a kid trespassing once, Lim said, though he didn’t bother to press charges against the youngster. Lim said a neighbor chased off some kids, too.
A Sheriff’s Office spokesman detailed two incidents at the property since the property was occupied: one in which juveniles were allegedly found inside the building smoking marijuana, and another in which juveniles allegedly threw rocks at the property, breaking windows. Drug charges were brought in the first case, but Lim did not want anyone charged with trespassing or for breaking the windows, though, the spokesman said.
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Lim hasn’t decided what he will do with the property next. He said some people want to restore the building because of its historical significance, but he’s not sure if that is a viable option.