Members saddened by club loss Cause is sought of Hillendale fire

August 22, 1993|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Staff Writer

Sparks flared again yesterday as fire investigators lifted the roof of the Hillendale County Club in northern Baltimore County, seeking the cause of a three-alarm fire that gutted the 40-year-old clubhouse Friday night.

"It's destroyed. It's a total loss," said Battalion Chief Paul A. Leverton II, surveying the blackened walls of the one-story brick building yesterday. He fought the fire as a volunteer with the Lutherville company, then returned as a paid fire official yesterday morning.

No official damage estimate had been determined yesterday, but the figure is expected to be several million dollars.

Firefighters quickly extinguished the flare-up early yesterday afternoon. But the renewed flames further delayed investigators from determining the fire's cause.

The club's food and beverage manager, Thelma Rexrode, opened a door about 9 p.m. Friday to discover smoke pouring down a stairwell from an attic storage room, where she was going to get candelabras for a wedding party that was scheduled at the club today, Chief Leverton said.

Ms. Rexrode alerted the staff and about 100 club members who were inside, and helped evacuate the building. No injuries were reported.

"She did a great job, getting everybody out like that," said the club's president, John J. Kenny.

"Thelma was our hero," said Honey Bushman of Monkton, a memberof the club for 36 years who herself was labeled a hero.

Mrs. Bushman and her husband, Robert, had given a dinner party for 40 at the club Friday. They were finishing dinner when a waiter quietly told them of the fire, Mrs. Bushman said.

"I'm the one with the big mouth," Mrs. Bushman said with a laugh. "So I just said, 'Would everybody just follow me, please?' Nobody was pushing; nobody was pushy." The group apparently thought that she wanted to take a group photograph, she said.

Because construction outside the dining room blocked the patio exit, the group had to file through the heaviest smoke to the front doors.

"I had knee surgery in June, but it's the fastest I ever moved," she said.

'It just went up in flames'

"By the time we got out front, then the flames shot up, and the wind was blowing sparks toward the parking lot, so we all had to go move the cars," she said. "Then it just went up in flames."

It was then that she realized the danger they had come through, Mrs. Bushman said. "It wasn't until we were out in the parking lot, and everything was in flames, that we all broke up."

She and Mrs. Rexrode stood in the parking lot, hugging and crying, she said.

Yesterday, Mr. Kenny clutched a singed U.S. flag that had flown from a 75-foot staff at the club entrance. When he arrived at the club about 10 p.m. Friday, he saw the flag surrounded by smoke and flames, he said.

"The fire chief said it was amazing to see the the flames above and around it, but it withstood the fury -- just like at Fort McHenry," Mr. Kenny said.

"This is going to make the centerpiece of our new club."

Hillendale County Club began in 1923 in a mansion built in 1876 on Loch Raven Boulevard at Hillen Road, he said. When the lease ran out in 1954, the club moved to its location on Blenheim Road off Jarrettsville Pike, where a small clubhouse was built and expanded over the years.

Hillendale is a private, members-only club with an emphasis on golf. Its 500-plus members recently approved $4 million in renovations and expansion of the clubhouse, officials said.

A running joke yesterday concerned the club's chandelier -- an eyesore to some that was difficult to clean and more suited to a grand hotel than a suburban golf club.

Members reacted with surprise and groans when told that the chandelier had been saved from the fire -- then laughed when they were assured of its demise. One member speculated that the unpopular fixture might even have caused the blaze.

"A lot of people are saying thank God" about the chandelier, Anne Engle said.

The loss of a putter

But her husband, Wally, a charter member in 1923, lamented the loss of a putter owned by the late Robert Jones, a club president and one of the best putters in the mid-Atlantic Region.

"To me, that was invaluable. But maybe they can find the head, and they could reshaft and restore it," he said.

Douglas H. Meyers, a 17-year member who came to retrieve his clubs, said he was at a party in Roland Park with the golf pro and several board members -- including an insurance agent for the club.

"Someone called and said Hillendale was burned to the ground," said. "We were laughing, thinking it was a joke. Then we all came out here."

Firefighters from as far as Harford County and Pikesville battled the fire. They used water from the club's private water tower, the swimming pool 200 feet away and a water hazard on the golf course, Chief Leverton said.

"It's just a wading pool now," said one boy, looking at the drained swimming pool while his parents went to retrieve their golf clubs.

A steady stream of members arrived yesterday to see the damage and get their clubs from storage trailers away from the clubhouse -- giving the initial impression that golfers were making the rounds as if nothing had happened.

Although the greens have been plagued with problems this year, several golfers said the fire apparently didn't harm the golf course. Play should resume by Wednesday, officials said.

Chester W. Beatty Sr., the club's general manager, said Baltimore Colts Hall-of-Famer Artie Donovan came to Hillendale yesterday to offer the use of his Valley Country Club for the wedding party. Several other clubs have called to offer their facilities while Hillendale rebuilds, he said.

"It's a very cohesive club," Mrs. Bushman said.

"Everybody's going to stick together to build a new club."

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