An abandoned 130-year-old historic mansion in Mount Pleasant was heavily damaged early yesterday morning in a fire that investigators said was "suspicious."

The blaze, at the old Stoddard Baptist Home at 1818 Newton St. NW, started about 1 a.m. Tuesday in the main stairwell of the former rest home and spread through the center of the two-story house.

Many residents of the quiet, tree-lined neighborhood expressed anger about the fire yesterday because they see it as another stage of the years-long deterioration of the huge, Victorian-era villa.

"I had tears in my eyes when I saw the fire," said Roger Vale, who lives next door at 1814 Newton St. NW and heard fire engine sirens as he was preparing for bed. "That's why I bought my house here, just to look at this beautiful old building."

The mansion's first floor was a swamp of water, charred remains, piles of burned books and broken glass yesterday, a far cry from its glory days.

The house was built in the 1850s by Hiram Walbridge, a Union Army general and friend of Abraham Lincoln, and was at the center of a 140-acre estate.

First used as a rest home in 1961, the house became a center of controversy in 1979 when neighborhood residents opposed plans to tear it down and replace it with a modern facility.

The Joint Committee on Landmarks designated it then as a historic building, and the owners, the Stoddard Baptist Home, gave up the plan.

The house had 60 residents two years ago, when city officials said it was in violation of fire codes. The building's residents were moved to another facility at 603 50th St. NE, and the building was closed.

Neighbors say that since then, vandals have broken many of the mansion's stained-glass windows, and trashed much of the inside. Two large crystal chandeliers are missing from the ground floor, as well as a large marble fireplace.

In the last year, the owners have proposed knocking down two adjoining structures, built in the 1920s and 1930s, and replacing them with a modern nursing home with 162 beds.

John Hunter, president of the Stoddard Baptist Home's board of directors, said he doesn't know how the fire would affect the group's plans to clean up the old building, knock down two more recent additions and build a 162-bed nursing home.

"It's too early for me to tell how this will affect our plans," Hunter said.