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Fire that damaged historic Austin Club building was intentionally set, suspect in custody

A fire that damaged a historical building in downtown was intentionally set, according to the Austin Fire Department. (Photo: CBS Austin)

A fire at an Austin landmark appears to have been intentionally set. 36-year-old Matthew James Caldwell is in custody, charged with 2nd degree arson. Damage to The Austin Club from fire, smoke and water is expected to top $100,000.

"When I got down here about 4:20 this morning my heart just sank," said Ken Richardson, general manager of The Austin Club.

Richardson thought the worst when he first saw firefighters swarming the historical building. He knew what the city stood to lose.

"It really was the first true cultural center in Austin, Texas," said Richardson.

After getting a closer look, the GM at the Austin Club is now grateful an important piece of state history didn't burn up.

"Thank God one sprinkler head saved this entire building," said Richardson.

The club's significance is plastered on the front of the building. But it's the stories that bring 140 years to life.

"This building hosted the first UT graduation," said Richardson. "Buffalo Bill and his military band performed here. We had dancing horses and goats and everything, but I think bears, on the stage here."

That history was almost lost when a man broke into the private social club through a sidedoor that connects to an alley.

"He had to work very hard to get in," said Carson Watson, the building engineer at The Austin Club.

Once inside, the intruder appears to have set two fires. The GM thinks he used matches from The Austin Club to try to light a tablecloth on fire. The flame retardant material just melted.

Then the intruder went to the third floor.

"He actually started the fire by lighting one of the tapestries that hangs on the wall," said Richardson.

The club is decorated with tapestries and expensive antiques, but that's not what the intruder was after.

"He was caught leaving the building with some alcohol, three bottles of wine and a can of Heineken. So apparently he likes imported beer," said Richardson.

It's about $100 worth of alcohol that is ending up costing $100,000 dollars in fire, smoke and water damage. The good news is that an historic building that dates back to 1878 wasn't added to the bill.

"It's part of the fiber of what makes Austin, Austin," said Richardson.

Matthew James Caldwell is charged with intentionally setting the fire. He does not appear to have any connection to The Austin Club.

"We don't recognize the name at all, so we don't think he had any ties to the club here at any time," said Richardson.

"It looks like a completely random crime, just a crime of opportunity," said Captain Andy Reardon with the Austin Fire Department.

The Austin Club has signs posted on the front door saying it will reopen on Tuesday. The GM says no weddings or other large events need to be moved or canceled.


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