A historic home in St. Paul's Cathedral Hill neighborhood was badly damaged by a large fire that occupied firefighters for hours and also claimed the lives of two cats.

The homeowners and their grown son escaped the fire at 251 Dayton Avenue unharmed. Three tenants renting the third floor were also unharmed, although it's unclear if any were home when the fire was reported to authorities about 11:34 a.m.

"A lot of love went into this house," said Alida Purmalietis, whose family moved into the home in the mid-1970s. "It's really heartbreaking."

Dark smoke and heavy flames billowed from the home located across the street from the Cathedral of St. Paul. The smoke was visible from the Minnesota State Capitol, and drew dozens of onlookers as firefighters battled the blaze from as many as three fire engine ladders extended over the home.

Ten fire engines and medic rigs with about 60 people responded to the fire, which was especially challenging because the older home construction didn't have the same fire safeguards as newer builds, said Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard.

There were no injuries to residents or firefighters, Zaccard said, adding that it's too early to determine a cause.

The second and third floors were "heavily involved," when firefighters arrived, he said.

"It's a very large house," Zaccard said. "Firefighters initially did go in to attack the fire, but the fire was so heavy and the structural conditions were deteriorating so rapidly that they had to be pulled out not once but twice."

The department set up aerial streams while calling for one more engine due to low water.

"It's just too dangerous," Zaccard said. "The roof has just collapsed from the third floor to the second floor."

Later, the second floor collapsed into the first floor, and the roof also gave in.

Josephine Johnson said she was biking by before fire crews arrived when she saw fire on the left side of the second floor. It quickly spread into the third floor, she said. Johnson, who used to live behind the home, said its garage burned down several years ago.

Records from the city's Department of Safety and Inspections show that several complaints from 2002 to 2016 were lodged against homeowners Maris and Norma Purmalietis for burning trash and allowing debris including furniture, appliances and a bus allegedly used as sleeping quarters to accumulate in the yard.

"Not only does it look horrible, but it's an attractive [sic] nuisance," said a complaint from 2012. "In addition, there is a trailer in the backyard, and people appear to be living in it. Words can't adequately describe this place.

Purmalietis, whose family moved into the home in the mid-1970s, said her 70-something parents still live at the address, and were home when the fire started. They got out safely with the help of their son, who also lived there.

Purmalietis said the family has two siamese cats, which officials later reported perished in the fire. Firefighter Kevin Lagos captured the family's pet rabbit as it ran loose in the yard, and returned the white creature to its outdoor hutch at the owner's request.

"My dad spent his life fixing this place," Purmalietis said. "The woodwork inside is irreplaceable."

Purmalietis' father, a woodworker, performed a lot of the restoration himself, and the family recently replaced the shingles to replicate the original roof. He watched the fire from across the street, but declined to comment. Tenants who arrived to watch also declined to comment.

According to county records, the home was built in 1865 and is valued at $535,000. Architectural historian Jim Sazevich, a friend of the Purmalietis family, arrived at the scene and said the home was built in 1864, and is one of the oldest homes in St. Paul.

"It was really just a huge loss," said Sazevich. "We have to go east to find houses of this caliber. It's so rare.