The downtown Washington house where Abraham Lincoln died was misidentified in an article Saturday. The 10th Street NW building is known as Peterson House. (Published 9/4/90)

A suspicious fire quickly spread through three vacant buildings in downtown Washington early yesterday morning, causing extensive damage on a historic block slated for development, fire officials said.

The intense blaze at 10th and E streets NW gutted the three vacant structures and destroyed Irving's Sport Shop, a downtown landmark for six decades that had weathered the area's decay and is still headed by its 82-year-old founder.

The immediate task for the five battalion chiefs and 135 firefighters at the scene was protecting the historic Anderson House, where Abraham Lincoln died after being shot in Ford's Theatre, which is opposite it on 10th Street. Firefighters contained the blaze to Irving's, which wraps around the corner of 10th and E streets and is just three buildings south of the Anderson House.

"Obviously, that was our first concern," said the department's fire marshal, Deputy Chief Bernard Johnson. "We wanted to make sure it did not reach that building."

But the vacant structures on 10th Street -- examples of the transition from 19th to 20th century architecture -- were not so fortunate. Investigators said the fire apparently started at 1009 E St. and spread east to 1007, which a marker indicates was built in 1895.

The fire spread through common areas connecting the vacant buildings, eventually engulfing 1005 E St., which partly collapsed, and Irving's at the corner.

"There was heavy smoke and heavy heat. It was just difficult to gauge," Acting Chief William C. Reid said of the blaze, first reported at 1:30 a.m. and declared under control at 4:22 a.m.

At noon, the buildings still smoldered, attracting tourists visiting Ford's Theatre. A charred and armless mannequin, wearing only ripped black stockings and red socks, stood on the sidewalk and appeared to be the only thing spared at Irving's.

Johnson said inspectors found some cans in one of the empty buildings. He did not elaborate, and the cans were taken for further examination.

All the buildings on the block -- with the exception of Irving's -- are owned by the Oliver Carr Co., which was scheduled to break ground last fall on a $130 million retail center between E and F streets. The project has been delayed by a soft real estate market, and work will not begin until a major tenant signs a lease, said Carr spokeswoman Joanne Kaplan.

The project was opposed by preservationists and the National Park Service, which argued that the large complex would overwhelm the Anderson House. But the developer made some concessions, and the complex was approved by the city in December 1988. The plan is to preserve the facades of the historic buildings, and indications yesterday were that the fire would not interfere with that, Kaplan said.

In 1988, with the Carr complex on the way, the small businesses on this stretch of Washington's old downtown began to close, and the buildings were boarded.

Terrance Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations who led the opposition to the project, blamed the developer yesterday, saying that the buildings were not properly guarded and the fire would not have occurred if they were not vacant. Lynch, a candidate for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council, described the structures as irreplaceable.

There has been evidence of break-ins on the block, but Kaplan said the Carr company has done everything possible to secure the buildings, including inspecting them as often as three times a week.

The irony yesterday was that the blaze did what development and the flight of the small businesses were unable to accomplish: close the door of Irving's, founded in 1927 by brothers Irving and Al Fogel.

It was the flagship of what is now known as Irving's Sports Shops, a 16-store chain whose board chairman is Irving Fogel and whose son, Robert, is president. Larry Alpert, the company's operating officer and general manager, said the building is structurally unsound and will be demolished.

"This was the original. The original," said Jose Konicki, a part owner of the chain, who was at the scene yesterday. "There's a lot of feelings in it. We have people who have been working here for 27 years."

Fire officials said the total damage to the buildings and store exceeded $500,000, although it was not clear how they arrived at that figure. There was one injury in the fire, which drew more than 20 pieces of equipment: One firefighter was treated for smoke inhalation, officials said.