'Suspicious' fire destroys former Just For Fun Roller Rink in McHenry

The former Just For Fun Roller Rink in McHenry is a "total loss and has collapsed" after a fire the McHenry Township Fire Protection District described in a news release Friday morning as "suspicious and ... under investigation."

Former business owner Lisa Duncan said she is "heartbroken" and had plans with a local investor to take back the building, restore it and reopen it for skaters in January.

Determining the cause of the fire is "going to take a little bit of time" due to the size of the building and the amount of damage, McHenry Township Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Kevin Sears said in an interview.

Investigators were on scene Friday morning but the investigative process was being hampered by the weather, Sears said. A determination on cause is likely to take weeks as even narrowing down point of origin would be difficult in a building that size.

Fire district crews were dispatched at 10:27 p.m. Thursday to the former rink at 914 N. Front St., where crews found the building "heavily involved in fire and being driven by strong winds" out of the north, according to a news release.

The fire was reported by several people who were traveling past the scene, the McHenry Police Department said in a news release Friday morning.

Fire crews began a defensive fire attack by applying water to the building using deck guns on several engines, three truck companies using aerial devices and several large diameter hand lines, according to a release.

The McHenry Township fire district was assisted by 17 other fire agencies, at the scene or for change of quarters to handle other emergencies.

Due to safety concerns and the number of fire apparatus needed, Front Street was temporarily closed from Elm Street, which is also Route 120, to Kane Avenue, according to the police department's release. The road reopened at 6:17 a.m.

The fire was brought under control around midnight and was "mostly extinguished" by 3:30 a.m., according to the release. Several hot spots were expected to flare up throughout the night into Friday due to the strong sustained winds, and so the fire department will check on the building periodically.

A damage estimate was not available Friday morning, but no injuries were reported, according to the release.

The fire is considered suspicious and is being investigated by McHenry Township Fire Protection District, McHenry Police Department and the Illinois State Fire Marshal.

One reason the fire is considered suspicious is because the building was vacant, Sears said.

A witness reported seeing "two subjects in the area around the time of this incident," according to the police department news release. It was unknown as of Friday morning whether those people were connected to the fire, the department said.

Anyone with information is asked to contact the McHenry Police Department's Criminal Investigation Division at (815) 363-2599. Those wishing to remain anonymous can use the department's tip line at (815) 363-2124.

"We are deeply saddened that McHenry has lost such a historic building to a fire," a post on the roller rink's Facebook said. "As some of you may recall, we closed our McHenry location last fall; however, so many of us in the McHenry Community have such heartfelt memories that were made in this building."

The building had opened as a dance hall in the 1920s before later being converted to a roller rink. Duncan purchased the rink business in 2001, vowing to the building owner that 100% of its earnings would go toward the aging structure's upkeep, and an effort by the community and local businesses in 2015 seemed to have save the rink.

But the financial hit from COVID-19 proved too great, and the rink closed permanently in mid-September. A Just For Fun Roller Rink location in Mundelein remains open and its owners have been making upgrades, Duncan said.

"I'm kind of like numb," she said Friday morning. She began receiving calls, texts and Facebook messages about 11 p.m. Thursday from friends telling her the rink was on fire.

Duncan and Toby Tagliapietra, whom she met at the rink and was to marry there in 2020 (plans quashed due to the pandemic), she made the 6-mile trek to the building.

When she arrived, the building she fought so hard to keep open and where she mentored thousands of children and teens for years, hosted parties for generations of families, and poured hundreds of thousands of dollars in to keep afloat, was engulfed in flames. She was met with hugs and tears from dozens of former skaters.

"I just felt like I was like in shock," she said. "I saw flames come out of the front door, and I'm just shaking. Everything is gone, and we are not going to be able to come back. ... Nobody can take our memories, (but) it is just so heartbreaking. So much of my heart and soul is in that place."

One former skater told Duncan "the rink wasn't just a building, it was our family."

Barbara Nowak, 18, of McHenry, celebrated her First Communion and had all of her birthday parties at the rink. She, her sisters and mother also worked there. Her sister had her baby shower there and her nephew's first birthday was celebrated at the rink.

She also was set to have her graduation photos taken at the rink Friday.

After seeing video posted on Facebook Thursday night and the billowing smoke outside her home, which is about five minutes away, she called Duncan and made her way to the building where she remained until 3:30 a.m. Friday.

"That's my home," Nowak said Friday morning her voice cracking. "That's just always where I went. I met all my friends there. It is where I would go whenever I got sad. That was just my peaceful place."

When Nowak arrived she "saw fire, nothing else, nothing else. ... It really hurts."

Duncan said there were plans in the works with an investor to reopen the rink by January.

She said on Sept. 20, 2020, the last day she was physically moving out of the building, and after twice the taxes were to be purchased by outside companies who then backed out, she was approached by an investor. This investor wanted to work with her and restore the building. The new plans included multiple uses with the roller rink remaining front and center, including basketball, indoor soccer and space for exercise classes, she said.

The 2.65-acre site along the busy Route 31 corridor through McHenry remains for sale for $220,000, according to its listing.

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