Early-morning fire ravages White Lakes Mall in south Topeka – WIBW

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) – The cause of a two-alarm fire at White Lakes Mall is still unknown.

The Topeka Fire Department says it is still investigating the cause of a two-alarm fire at White Lakes Mall that has caused around $100,000 in damage.

TFD also said investigators have been unsuccessful in removing squatters from the area.

TFD said if anyone has information regarding the circumstances of the fire, to contact Crime Stoppers at 785-234-0007 or toll-free at 1-800-222-8477.

Dec. 29, 7:09 a.m.

A two-alarm fire ravaged the White Lakes Mall building on a frigid Tuesday morning in south Topeka.

Flames and heavy smoke were pouring out of the roof of the mostly empty building as crews arrived on the scene around 6:40 a.m. Tuesday.

Topeka Fire Department officials said crews made a “defensive attack,” battling the blaze only from the outside.

The building wasn’t considered safe enough to send firefighters inside and risk the roof collapsing on them, Topeka Fire Marshal Todd Harrison said at the scene.

“Due to the nature of where the fire started and the age of the building,” Harrison said, “we are not allowing our firefighters to get inside.”

To help bring the blaze under control, an aerial apparatus unit was called to the scene to spray water down into the center portion of the structure.

That truck was parked along the center portion on the west side of the mall.

Additional firefighters battled the blaze from the east side of the building.

Heavy smoke, aided by a steady easterly breeze of about 15 mph, was carried northwest from the mall.

Harrison advised people to remain indoors as the smoke was expected to roll out of the mall most of the morning on Tuesday.

“Right now, the main focus of what the community is probably seeing is there’s quite a bit of smoke coming up and out of White Lakes Mall,” Harrison said, “so we would encourage the neighborhood, the west side of Topeka, to probably stay indoors.”

There were no immediate reports of injuries and it was unknown as of mid-morning Tuesday if anyone was inside the structure. However, firefighters hadn’t been allowed inside the building as of mid-morning Tuesday.

In 2019, WIBW reported that “squatters” were known to be inside the building. “Squatters” are homeless individuals who say in vacant structures

A cause of the fire also hadn’t been determined, as investigators also hadn’t been cleared to go inside the building.

Harrison said the fire appeared to have done the most damage near the northern part of the mall.

However, Harrison added, Mainline Printing, located in the old Sears building at the north end of the mall, hadn’t been damaged as of Tuesday afternoon.

“We’re doing everything we can to protect Mainline Printing,” Harrison said. “It is safe at this time.”

Mainline Printing, Harrison said, was the only business left in the once-thriving mall, which boasted a number of businesses in its heyday in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, including JC Penney, Walgreens, Woolworths, Falley’s market and a number of clothing stores and shops.

The mall opened in the mid-1960s and was a hub of activity for about 30 years, when West Ridge Mall opened in 1988 at 1801 S.W. Wanamaker Road.

Since then, nearly all of the stores and businesses that once occupied space at White Lakes Mall have left.

Topeka Fire Crews battle a blaze at the mostly abandoned White Lakes Mall Tuesday morning.
Topeka Fire Crews battle a blaze at the mostly abandoned White Lakes Mall Tuesday morning.(Phil Anderson)

Since then, nearly all of the stores and businesses that once occupied space at White Lakes Mall have left.

The long-time Topeka shopping center took its name from the White Lakes Country Club that originally sat on the site.

13 News spoke with Emily Cowan, founder of the Abandoned Kansas website. She says White Lakes Mall was built in the early 60′s and opened in 1964 at a cost of $8 million dollars. The mall was once anchored by former retail power-houses Sears and J.C. Penney’s. Other stores included Walgreens, Robinson’s Shoes and Falley’s Market.

Cowan notes that West Ridge Mall drew both Sears and Penney’s away when it opened in 1988. White Lakes Mall later re-branded as White Lakes Center–attempting to move from retail space only to business. The abandoned portions of the mall have become home to squatters–a problem for police, the city, and the property owner. In fact, the City of Topeka condemned the building in August of this year.

The mall is currently owned by KDL, Inc. Our story archives show that owner Kent Lindemuth filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and later was acquitted of 117 federal charges against him–the majority of which were related to alleged bankruptcy fraud.

Despite the fire, Cowan with Abandoned Kansas says she still holds out hope that White Lakes will rise from the ashes.

“It has a personal connection to my family because my aunt and uncle actually met there in 1983,” Cowan said. “He pulled up with some friends and he was supposed to be meeting some other friends, and they mistaked [sic] my aunt’s car for their friends and they started talking and the next weekend they went on a date.” Thirty-seven years later they are still married.

Cowan told 13 News that she hopes Tuesday’s fire will be a wake-up call for Topeka and the state of Kansas. She said now is the time to begin preserving our historic properties that are in danger of being lost such as the Menninger campus and the former Sumner School.

Shawnee County property records reveal that the county appraised the White Lakes Mall property at more than $800,000 dollars for 2020. Taxes are more than $42,000.

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