A fire that started in a vacant 150-year-old downtown Middletown building early Saturday morning is under investigation.

Lt. Frank Baughman, city fire marshal, said firefighters responded to the fire at the U.S. Hotel building, 34 S. Main St. about 12:14 a.m. when a passing motorist called 911 after hearing glass breaking and seeing flames shooting out of the third floor.

Baughman said when fire crews entered the building, they found one person sleeping behind a closed door on the building’s second floor, about 25 to 30 feet from the fire. That person was escorted out of the building by firefighters. Baughman said witnesses saw two other people leaving the building after it caught fire.

The fire consumed the stairway between the second and third floors and continued through the roof. Structural damage to the building was reported.

“It was a challenge for firefighters to contain the fire,” Baughman said.

Firefighters also found belongings and other evidence in the 30,000 square-foot building that indicated people were living and sleeping in there, he said.

“There were multiple doors and windows that were found unlocked,” Baughman said.

He said the preliminary cause of the fire was “incendiary” and that the fire remains under investigation.

The building was vacated in February after Hope House homeless shelter moved to its new location at 1001 Grove St. The Hope House homeless shelter had been located in that building for 31 years. In addition to the homeless shelter, All About Cutz barber shop was located in retail space on the first floor.

Since December 1987, the property has sold three times, according to the Butler County Auditor’s Office. That year it sold for $9,600, then for $39,000 in May 1989, according to county records.

BTFO LLC, a group of about six investors — some local, some from Canada — purchased the South Main Street building for $115,000 and planned to renovate the property into retail/office space or residential in September 2017. In June 2018, the property was transferred to Malleum US Partners LP, which is based in Tierra Verde, Fla.

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