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USA Today founder’s mansion burns in Florida

Firefighters battle a fire at the iconic mansion Pumpkin Center on Tuesday, March 15, 2016 in Cocoa Beach, Fla. The massive fire has destroyed an iconic Florida mansion once owned by USA Today founder Al Neuharth. (Malcolm Denemark / AP)
Firefighters battle a fire at the iconic mansion Pumpkin Center on Tuesday, March 15, 2016 in Cocoa Beach, Fla. The massive fire has destroyed an iconic Florida mansion once owned by USA Today founder Al Neuharth. (Malcolm Denemark / AP)

COCOA BEACH, Fla. (AP) – The quirky, 10,000-square-foot, sun-drenched oceanfront compound that was once owned by USA Today founder Al Neuharth burned down, and fire investigators said Wednesday they were examining if ongoing construction played a role in the blaze.

Cocoa Beach Fire Chief Ryan Duckworth said Wednesday that the 11-bedroom, 13-bathroom home was a total loss. He said firefighters found dumpsters and construction materials on the 1.1-acre property. No one was injured, the fire chief said.

The home had rooftop decks, a 2-bedroom guest cottage, a mother-in-law apartment, tennis and basketball courts, a treehouse, a fireplace and a pool.

“It’s a sad loss,” Duckworth told reporters outside the compound’s fences. “We’re going to find out what happened.”

Property records show the owners are Jeffrey and Teeraporn Wells. They purchased the wood-framed Pumpkin Center in 2015 for $4 million. The property started with a single house in 1975 and over the decades, new structures were added to create a wood-encased beachfront compound.

On Wednesday morning, police cordoned off a section of the busy beachfront road where the mansion is located to keep motorists away.

Bystanders stood along the street Tuesday night, watching as firefighters battled the blaze.

Shey Anderson, who lives nearby, told Florida Today the fire grew rapidly.

“We saw the embers in the air and everything. It’s really sad. It’s been an iconic part of Cocoa Beach for a while now. I know that everybody knows the Pumpkin Center,” she said.

After Neuharth died in April 2013, his wife, Dr. Rachel Fornes, lived there with her children until the estate was sold.

According to Florida Today, Neuharth named the estate Pumpkin Center after a crossroads bar and eatery he liked in his native South Dakota.

Wells told the newspaper earlier this month that his intent was to allow people to hold weddings at the property, once renovations were complete.

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