The Cedar Lake Vol. Fire Dept. was called to the one-story brick building at 11009 W. 133rd Ave., at 5:47 a.m., after a siren on the building was activated.
It took firefighters from Cedar Lake, Lowell, Lake Dalecarlia, and Lake Hills about two hours to bring the blaze under control, but firefighters were on the scene until 5:40 p.m. Friday. "That's when we finally finished with the 'hot spots,'" according to Fire Chief Dennis Wilkening.
The entire building was consumed by the flames, and several sections of the brick walls, including the front showroom wall, collapsed. The structure and its contents were a total loss, and by midmorning the blackened bricks and charred rubble was all that remained of the showroom, offices, and service area of the building.
"It was a historic landmark. I hate to see it burn," said Wilkening, who said 10 vehicles inside the building and four parked outdoors were also destroyed. That included four new cars in the showroom and six others parked inside the garage for repair work. Two cars in front of the building awaiting repair work were smashed when the front wall fell onto them, and other cars in the used car lot on the west side of the building were also damaged.
Wilkening said the cause of the fire is under investigation. An insurance investigator was due on the scene Saturday, while a representative from the State Fire Marshal's office was to arrive Friday.
Police Chief Jim Hunley said there has been speculation the fire began near an overhead garage door on the east side of the building, and arson has not been ruled out. There was no evidence of forced entry, according to the fire department upon initial investigation, but there were reports that a person was seen near the building early in the morning, and that a fire may have been set in a car at the west end of the used car lot.
Siding on a house next to the Center Garage building melted due to the heat, and a house across the street was soaked with water to prevent sparks from igniting the roof, but the fire itself was contained to the garage alone.
One of the oldest businesses in Cedar Lake, Center Garage was opened in 1925 by John Schutz, Sr., who at 86 has remained active in the business for over 60 years.
The 65-year-old building was purchased by Schutz as a blacksmith shop, and he soon added gasoline pumps and began repairing cars. First a Ford dealership, Schutz later changed makes and finally settled on Chrysler-DeSoto cars.
Joining Schutz in his business were is son, Jack Schutz, and a son-in-law, Gene Buczek, both of whom passed away several years ago, shortly after the 60th anniversary of the business.
Along with the founder, the business has been run in recent years by grandson John Schutz III and a daughter-in-law, Phyllis. The interior of the building was recently remodeled.
Firefighters were forced to collect water from Cedar Lake, pumps at Hanover Central High School and other sites due to the lack of a municipal water system. Portable tanks were set up on 133rd Ave., to supply trucks at the scene, and a steady supply of water was available as firefighters fought the douse the flames.
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