Roused by a midnight phone call, Walter Schamu scrambled yesterday morning to Charles and Eager streets and was met by a sickening sight: The century-old marble-and-hardwood Maryland Club was ablaze. Firefighters summoned by seven alarms were struggling to douse the climbing flames.
"It's just an awful, gut-wrenching, hopeless and helpless feeling to see such a fine and incredible historical landmark under siege as it was," said Mr. Schamu, an architect and member of the governing board of the private men's club.
After assessing the estimated $4 million in damage -- and after pondering the 1891 building's architectural significance -- he added, "It was a statement about being up on Charles Street, the growth and prosperity and confidence Baltimore had in itself those days. All of that I see in the building. It's just a tragedy to see that it's been so badly damaged."
Investigators ruled the fire an accident that apparently began with a propane grill on the club's terrace level. The building had a fire alarm but no sprinkler system, Mr. Schamu said.
As flames stretched over Eager Street early yesterday, club members came to watch. Some returned later when, in the daylight, they could better see the damage: the facade of rough-cut Beaver Dam marble stained with bibs of soot beneath blown-out windows; the Tiffany-style skylight, depicting a black-eyed Susan, fallen and smashed; the squash courts awash in water; the terrace an expanse of charred wood.
Still, club officials were talking of restoration -- of repairing everything from the oil portrait of the club's founder to the kitchen on the fire-damaged third floor. It may take a year, but the club probably will remain a fixture on the southeast corner of Charles and Eager.
The worst damage was to the rear of the building. The oak paneling and stained glass that give the front rooms their classic air are smoky and sooty but salvageable, club officials said.
The fire apparently began between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. Saturday. Donald Davis, owner of the Central Station bar and restaurant directly across Eager Street, said he was eating at a sidewalk table about 10:20 p.m. when he smelled smoke. He saw no flames then, he said, but did a little more than half an hour later, when the smell grew stronger.
Yesterday, he said he wished he had called the Fire Department when he first smelled smoke. "It probably would have saved the building," he said.
Firefighters received their first report of fire at 10:55 p.m. Within 15 minutes, five more alarms were sounded, and another call was made later for more reinforcements, said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a city Fire Department spokesman.
Chief Torres said the "cut up" nature of the rooms within the large building made the going slow for firefighters, who had to work in shifts to contain the fire's spread. Access to the third-floor kitchen was hindered by wrought-iron-covered windows, they said.
About 150 firefighters, using more than 30 trucks and engines, had brought the fire under control by about 2:30 a.m. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries, Chief Torres said.
It is believed that no one was in the building when the fire started, apparently because the club had closed for two weeks after a party on the terrace Friday.
On a happier day, the terrace might have been the site of a wedding reception. Yesterday, it emitted an acrid, burnt smell. A sweeter fragrance came from the sawdust of plywood being cut to cover windows.
Beverly Fuller, director of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, said as she watched the work that the building is a symbol for a neighborhood where even the rowhouses have an extra -- of elegance.
"Quite a significant building on quite a significant corner, so obviously we're all crushed," she said. "I think this is something we felt was pretty permanent. I think a little bit of our security went up in flames last night."
The building, which was designed by Baldwin and Pennington, is considered a prime example of the Romanesque style influenced by the 19th-century architect H. H. Richardson. Behind the exterior marble walls are lofty interior surfaces finished in mahogany, Tennessee marble and quartered oak. Leather upholstery, antiques and a double-width staircase complete the luxurious look.
The Maryland Club, established in the late 1850s, moved from Cathedral and Franklin streets to the Charles Street location near the end of the 19th century. It has for generations been a social oasis for Baltimore blue bloods, offering its male membership comfortable surroundings for reading, dining and working out. Women were not permitted to enter the club as guests until 1963, and the first black member was admitted in 1988.
Although one member described it as just what could be found in any New Yorker cartoon about a men's club, a board member said the image of corpulent bigwigs smoking cigars in overstuffed chairs is outdated.
"You don't have the fat guys sitting in the chairs staring out the windows anymore," said Lewis C. Strudwick, a Poplar Hill resident and lawyer who has been a member of the club since 1958. He said many of the club's more than 700 members are young men more interested in playing squash.
"It's a Baltimore establishment that's been there at the present location for over 100 years and will be there for another 100 years," Mr. Strudwick said. "We're an anchor in that neighborhood. We have a great deal of confidence in it."