A small, smoky fire, quickly put out by firefighters using an extinguisher on Wednesday afternoon, has led to the immediate closure of 915 Spring Garden St., a large old Reading Railroad building that has held about 100 artist studios for more than three decades.

The fire, caused by a refrigerator on the fourth floor of the five-story building, led to minimal damage, but inspectors from the Fire Department and the Department of Licenses and Inspections toured the building Thursday morning and ordered immediate evacuation, stunning artists who have used the building without incident for years.

The artists were told they could retrieve all of their artwork, equipment, kilns, sculptures, and belongings over a two-day period next week. The building will remain closed until code violations are fixed, inspectors said.

No official from Pintzuk Brown Realty Group of Jenkintown, owner of the building, returned calls Friday.

"It's a nightmare," said Scott Cameron, a painter and graphic artist who was working in his fourth-floor studio at the time of the fire. "It's literally impossible to move in two days."

A spokeswoman for L&I, Beth Grossman, said Friday that inspectors found 29 code violations in the building.

"They've got a big problem," she said.

Pressed on the time artists would be allowed for removal of their belongings, Grossman said the department would "be happy to work with folks and give them time." She invited any artist with concerns to contact L&I.

Most of the violations pertain to blocked or improperly modified doors, poorly maintained elevator shafts and fire escapes, lack of fire extinguisher tags and exit signs, and the like.

Probably the most significant violations involved lack of a functioning standpipe system and sprinklers, and open electrical junctions and other outlet issues.

"It's a dangerous situation," Grossman said. "God forbid if something happened. There is paint in there. It's very dicey."

Steven Donegan, an artist who began managing the building as studio space in 1981 and manages leases for the owner, said L&I has regularly inspected the building over the years and had never issued a citation or noted a violation.

The L&I website currently lists an outstanding violation for uncut weeds on the building grounds. No actual building violations are mentioned.

Cameron said closure of the building, which offers low-cost studios, would leave "a huge hole in the arts community, massive."

ssalisbury@phillynews.com

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