To University of Tampa President David Ruffer, 67-year-old McKay Auditorium has functioned as everything from a cultural hub to a source of extra class space when the school needed it.
"It is a significant building in the history of the city," Ruffer said. "It was the municipal theater where people could go see concerts, lectures or wrestling."
Friday afternoon, as Ruffer and hundreds of others looked on, a piece of Tampa's history burned from flames that climbed as high as the minarets on nearby Plant Hall, the city's signature landmark.
The blaze started around 2 p.m., just hours after workers finished repairing leaks in the roof caused by the March 13 storm. Firefighters finally contained the fire shortly after 4 p.m. The fire sent smoke billowing thick and black enough to slow gawking motorists on Interstate 275.
Asbestos in the vacant auditorium ceiling near where the fire roared had officials considering evacuation of nearby campus buildings.
Bruce Savage, division chief and spokesman for the Tampa Fire Department, said about 2,500 square feet of asbestos remains in part of the building not far from the fire.
"It was probably 80 to 100 feet away," Savage said. "That area was never involved in the fire but if asbestos (had been) released in the area, we probably would have wanted to evacuate."
No one was injured by the fire that destroyed much of the roof of the auditorium _ once the center for performing arts in Tampa. Officials said most of the interior sustained only water damage. Several firefighters were overcome by the 95-degree afternoon heat. No damage estimates were available late Friday.
Investigators have not determined the cause of the fire or whether the roof work was related to it.
"Talking to the maintenance people there, they were not using hot tar or anything like that," Savage said. "But anything is possible."
More than 50 firefighters responded. But because of the precarious location of the blaze, it took almost an hour to contain.
"The problem was just getting to it," Savage said. "Because it was in the ceiling, we either had to fight it from the bottom or the top. It was like fighting a fire in a fireplace by coming down through the chimney."
Tampa police closed W North B Street and diverted traffic on other side roads near the campus. Traffic also slowed substantially on northbound Interstate 275 near Ashley Street, a vantage point from which motorists could see the fire and smoke clearly.
President Ruffer said the 1,942-seat auditorium has been used only sparingly the past three years.
Some classes were held there from time to time, and part of the building was used for office space until about six months ago. Like other buildings, the university leases the auditorium from the city of Tampa.
The building was once home to the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony _ later renamed the Florida Orchestra _ the school's resident Hoffman String Quartet and several local theater troupes. The university's Music Department was located in the building during the 1970s. The auditorium was named for four-term Tampa mayor and former newspaper publisher D.
B. McKay, who died in 1960.
History was made at the site even before ground was broken for the auditorium in 1924: A plaque in front of the building recalls that baseball legend Babe Ruth hit his longest home run, a monumental 587-foot blast, in a preseason game in 1919 when the site was the home of Plant Field.
The auditorium's heyday as a cultural center ended years ago, after theater groups and others took their shows to the Performing Arts Center on the other side of the Hillsborough River.
Recently, university officials have considered renovating the auditorium and turning it into a three-story business school, Ruffer said. He valued the building at $485,000 and said most of the damage repair costs likely will be paid by the school's insurance.
"We have a distinct advantage" in making repair work and renovating the building now, Ruffer said. "It isn't being used, and there will be no interruptions to the work flow or classes. We have the luxury to think through the next step."
There was a 1990 fire at nearby Plant Hall, a onetime hotel that is the university's main administration building. That fire caused $200,000 in damage, and the university spent millions more renovating the 102-year-old building before it was reopened later that same year.
_ Staff writers Brad Snyder and Chastity Pratt and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this story.