By Chelsea Irving

CHICAGO (CBS) – Chicago firefighters spent several hours battling a three-alarm fire at the old Gatelys Peoples store building in Roseland, which was once considered the largest department store on Michigan Avenue, but has been mostly vacant since 1994.

The cause of the fire may never be determined because of the extent of the damage, fire department officials said.

The building will now be demolished and the loss of the iconic structure will add to the struggles of the Roseland neighborhood. This once bustling corridor now lined with vacant shuttered stores. City data shows there were more 90 complaints about vacant building in this neighborhood.

Abraham Lacy, of the Far South Community Development Corporation, says Roseland is losing the battle on three fronts– crime, economy and the emotions of people here.

“If you’re seeing constant vacancies, that is going to play on your mind that this is disinvested and that no one really cares,” he said.

The fire started around 3:30 a.m. at the old Gatelys department store building at 112th and Michigan. Chicago Fire Department District Chief Jack Nagle said heavy flames were coming through the roof when the first crews arrived, and within 20 minutes, a 2-11 alarm was called to bring in extra firefighters.

By 4:15 a.m., the alarm was raised to a 3-11, bringing a total of about 125 firefighters to the scene. While crews were able to contain the blaze to the Gatelys building, Nagle said firefighters likely would be at the scene several hours due to the size of the fire, to make sure it doesn’t flare up again once the flames are doused.

Firefighters were still at the scene late Friday morning, pouring water on hot spots long after the worst of the fire was out. Crews were kept out of the building for several hours, due to the dangerous conditions inside after most of the roof collapsed.

“Luckily, a lot of the building’s vacant. There’s not a lot of contents in there. So it’s mostly the roof structure that appears to be involved in the fire,” Nagle said. “The majority of the roof has come in. That’s the reports we’re getting from our baskets.”

No injuries were reported, but many people in the community were at a loss for words seeing a relic of Roseland’s past being destroyed.

Gately’s closed its doors in 1994, and most of the building, which is five stories high in some parts, has been vacant since then, although there are a few small businesses on the ground floor.

Roseland resident Bernard Kelly said he still remembers when Gatelys was described as the biggest department store on Michigan Avenue, so it was painful to see the building going up in flames.

“It hurts. It hurts. I hope it comes back, but it will never be Gately’s,” Kelly said. “It was a family store. You name it, it was there. This was our mall.”

Kelly said Gately’s used to be part of a bustling shopping district in Roseland, which has seen a major decline in the past couple decades.

A vintage photograph of Gatelys People’s Store, once considered the largest department store on Michigan Avenue. (Source: South Suburban Genealogical and Historical Society)

“Back in the day, J.C. Penney’s was here, all the stores, Robert Hall [clothing store]. Back in the day when everybody was getting the S&H stamps and plaid stamps and all that, this is it,” he said.

The fire appeared to have started on the upper floors of the building. The cause is under investigation.

Now mostly a vacant building, Gately’s People’s Store closed in 1994, but was a bustling department store in the 1950s and 60s. (Source: South Suburban Genealogical and Historical Society)

Due to numerous code violations and other ongoing issues, Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) questioned the cause of the fire.

“It raises a lot of suspicions, and the Fire Department’s going to do a thorough investigation to find out exactly what’s the cause of this fire,” he said.

Beale said he would recommend the immediate demolition of the building due to the extensive damage.

Chelsea Irving