NEW ORLEANS — A fire that erupted Wednesday evening inside a vacant Garden District mansion owned by pop superstar Beyoncé is under investigation as a possible arson.
The New Orleans Fire Department said it learned of the blaze when a smoke alarm at the home in the 1500 block of Harmony Street was activated about 6:20 p.m.
About the same time, New Orleans police officers said they received a report of a suspicious person in the 3100 block of St. Charles Avenue, which is just around the corner from the mansion.
Officers said they determined the suspicious-person call was connected to the fire, which city emergency officials classified as arson, according to a statement from the Police Department's public information office.
A Fire Department spokesperson on Thursday declined to comment on a possible cause for the one-alarm fire, saying it remained under investigation.
Ultimately, 22 firefighters arrived at the mansion to extinguish the flames, which left damage inside but caused no injuries. According to the Fire Department, no one lived there recently, though the house has working utilities.
While NOFD officials were mum about exactly what made them suspect the fire may have been intentionally set, there were plenty of clues that was the case, and an investigation quickly began.
An agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was inside the home Thursday afternoon, joined by personnel from the fire and police departments.
The ATF often assists local fire departments with investigating fires that are intentionally set. An NOPD officer on Thursday afternoon carried out what appeared to be a DVR from a surveillance camera system.
A source who was briefed on the situation said Wednesday evening’s blaze appeared to have started in the kitchen, where firefighters found books inside of an oven. Firefighters also saw a gasoline can in the house, the source said.
Neighbors who asked to not be identified said they were under the impression authorities suspected someone broke into the home shortly before the fire.
One of the neighbors said people are known to use an unlocked gate to get onto the property.
Another neighbor, Jacques Michell, said, “Inside the house, I’ve never seen any activity in the two years I’ve been here. No activity at all.”
The arson investigation marks only the latest chapter in the nearly 100-year-old mansion's history.
The 15,000-square-foot, three-story Spanish Baroque building was constructed in 1926 by the then-fledgling Westminster Presbyterian Church. It drew inspiration from Latin America’s Mission-style churches and cost $84,000 to build.
The church’s founding pastor, admitted Ku Klux Klan leader J.C. Barr, left in 1930 following a disagreement over the closure of a Presbyterian hospital.
But the congregation stayed at the building until the late 1960s. After that it sat vacant for several years.
Renowned New Orleans ballet instructor Harvey Hysell, who was the son of a church organist, then spent about $100,000 to acquire the building in 1977 and turn it into a ballet school. The school operated there until 2001, training a generation of New Orleans dancers, before new owners renovated the building into a three-bedroom, 3½-bath house.
In 2015, it was Beyoncé ’s turn to own the home.
City records show a shell company listing a mailing address for the management firm owned by the 28-time Grammy winner, Parkwood Entertainment, purchased the home for $2.6 million that year.
That property is separate from another century-old New Orleans church that Beyoncé reportedly bought in 2018, at the corner of Camp and Seventh Street, roughly a half-mile away.
Parkwood Entertainment didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. Beyoncé’s manager, Michael Oppenheim, said Thursday that he was unaware of the fire and declined comment.