10 survivors of Baltimore's greatest disaster

February 07, 1994|By Fred B. Shoken

NINETY years ago today and tomorrow, the Great Baltimore Fire devastated 140 acres in downtown Baltimore.

Virtually everything was destroyed from Liberty Street east to the Jones Falls and from Fayette Street south to the harbor.

About 15 buildings within the "burnt district" survived the fire, and 10 are still standing, silent monuments to the greatest disaster in Baltimore's history.

Thousands of downtown workers and visitors pass these survivors every day, but few can distinguish them from their post-fire neighbors. Three stand vacant, victims of the current depression in downtown real estate.

One is merely a facade, part of a newer, less worthy building, and another (not included in the 10) is a transplanted piece of a facade, a cruel joke on historic preservation. As recently as seven years ago, one survivor was quietly razed; nobody seemed to notice.

If these 10 survivors could speak, they would tell a tale of a cold Febru

ary evening when it seemed that the entire sky was ablaze. They would relate that the heat was so intense that iron and glass melted into nebulous globs.

While they survived, other Baltimore landmarks, the Sun Iron Building and Carrollton Hotel, to name two, passed into oblivion.

The fire took place when these buildings were youngsters, and over the years they have seen a new city built around them, taller and brighter than the destroyed 19th-century Baltimore. Much of this new city was replaced by an even newer one -- Charles Center and the Inner Harbor. But neither fire nor redevelopment could deter the survivors as they continued to serve as banks, offices, power plants and amusements. If they are able to survive the neglect of the 1990s, in a mere decade they may be here for the disaster's centennial.

On your next visit downtown, stop by the 10 survivors and pay homage to the strength and determination required to withstand disasters (either natural or man-made). Tested in their youth, they have survived much since that eventful day and prove that some good things do last.

* Alex Brown and Sons, 135 E. Baltimore St., built in 1901, still functions much as it did before the fire. On the outside, decayed stonework reminds us of the destruction 90 years ago. On the inside, a magnificent stained glass dome attests to the splendor of a vibrant financial institution.

* The Equitable Building, 10 N. Calvert St., built in 1891, was virtually gutted by the fire. Its Turkish baths are long gone, but the ornate stone, brick and terra cotta facade and the splendid interior lobby remain.

* The Continental Trust Building, 1 S. Calvert St., built in 1900, was Baltimore's tallest building in 1904. The architect was the renowned Daniel H. Burnham, who said, "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood."

* The Maryland Trust Building, 16 S. Calvert St., built in 1890, is more infamous as the former headquarters of Old Court Savings and Loan, a disaster of economic dimensions approaching the Baltimore Fire. Sadly, the front entrance was altered and enclosed within the past eight years.

* The Mercantile Building, 200 E. Redwood St., built in 1885, is the oldest fire survivor, and therefore the oldest building in the financial district. A magnificent Romanesque design, it has been abandoned by the bank and is in need of a savior.

* The National Bank of Commerce, 24 South St., built in 1901, was most recently a branch of Signet Bank. Vacant for nearly five years, it has a dropped acoustical tile ceiling that may cover splendors.

* The Pier 4 power plant, 601 E. Pratt St., built between 1900 and 1909, comprises three buildings, two of which survived the fire. This vacant hulk deserved a better fate than in the fiendish hands of the fictional Phineas Flagg. Perhaps plans to turn it into a sports center will pan out.

* 301 Water St., built in 1894, was originally eight stories tall, but the fire reduced it to two. It was further trimmed back to a mere facade to allow for the construction of the headquarters of Baltimore Federal Savings and Loan, another financial (if not architectural) disaster.

* 2 E. Fayette St., built in the 1890s, was severely damaged by the fire, but its steel structure was sound. It was given a new facade after the fire, but its skeleton pre-dates the disaster.

* The Central Savings Bank, 1 E. Lexington St., built in 1891, was technically outside of the "burnt district," yet all the buildings around it were destroyed and its southern exposure was damaged. One of Baltimore's great bank buildings, it needs a compatible first-floor tenant. This building is more of a fire survivor than the House of Welsh or Otterbein Church, which claim survivor status despite standing blocks from the conflagration.

Two other physical reminders of the fire can be seen in downtown Baltimore. One is a large plaque concerning the fire which was placed on the old Fish Market, another building in need of rescue. The other is a circular stone medallion on the Maryland National Bank Building visible at the Baltimore Street entrance second from the bottom on the right.

It depicts a mythological figure protecting a small bank building from a city aflame. It represents the Great Baltimore Fire. The bank building it shows was a fire survivor which stood on that site until the Maryland National Bank Building rose 28 years later.

Fred B. Shoken is president of Baltimore Heritage Inc.

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