Demolition has started on an historic Auckland church hall ravaged by fire yesterday.

The "huge" blaze engulfed the heritage-listed St James Presbyterian Church hall on Esplanade Rd in the suburb of Mt Eden just after 4.30pm.

Up to 15 fire engines and dozens of crew members worked to bring the inferno under control.

Flames and billowing smoke were visible from across the city.

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However, the historic building could not be saved, with demolition crews starting the urgent razing job this afternoon after safety concerns, an Auckland Council spokeswoman confirmed.

The fire is being treated as suspicious by fire investigators. Specialist fire investigator Nick Linton told the Herald today that after inspecting the devastation at St James Presbyterian Church hall in Mt Eden, he had deemed the fire to be of suspicious nature.

The church hall, which was closed by an Auckland Council dangerous building notice in 2012, was believed to have been abandoned and no one was inside.

Linton said, as a result of this, all amenities to the hall had been stopped – so there was no electricity or water.

"From what I understand, over the years there had been various squatters and homeless people, vandalism and break ins," he said.

"So when we look at it we think, well okay, there is no power to the building so that eliminates the possibility of an electrical fire; it was a beautiful sunny day so there was no lightning involved - therefore it kind of only leaves human intervention.

"Given all of these factors, and from what we found at the scene, we are deeming it suspicious."

Mt Eden local Keith Scott yesterday described the fire as like "a bomb had gone off".

"We saw the smoke, it was massive, massive - it was spreading all over the area. It was pretty shocking," he told the Herald.

Scott said fire crews were on the scene pretty smart and got to work on the church, spraying it with water in an attempt to extinguish the large blaze.

Witnesses said the building was the church hall but was not used by the church because Auckland Council deemed it unsafe. They said squatters lived in the hall.

The witnesses were in church this morning before going away for lunch, however, they spotted the flames and decided to investigate, thinking it was a house fire.

Upon arrival the witnesses said they were "surprised and shocked".

In February the Herald reported that people had been warned to stay well back from the church's historic but "dangerous" Auckland Sunday school hall, whose repairs no one had been willing to finance.

Developer View West earlier wanted to build several apartments within the St James church precinct on the corner of View and Esplanade Rds. It also wanted to demolish the hall fronting Esplanade Rd and build more apartments there.

Both buildings have a B-grade heritage listing with the Auckland Council. Both are owned by the Presbyterian Church Property Trustee. The council assessed the property's capital value to be $6 million last year.