A five-alarm fire gutted a cluster of century-old buildings near the State House last night in a blaze described as the worst in modern times in Annapolis' historic district.
Seventy-five firefighters kept away crowds of Christmas shoppers on Main Street but failed to keep flames from spreading from an Indian restaurant to some of the city's older buildings.
No one was injured in the fire, which firefighters thought they had contained, only to see it sweep into other establishments. The cause remained unknown last night.
The blaze, which firefighters had under control by 10: 30, started about 5: 15 p.m. in the India Palace, at 186 Main St., a three-story brick building that was built in the 1870s and did not have a sprinkler system.
The blaze spread into a connecting gourmet food store, American Spoon Foods at 184 Main St., gutted lawyers' offices behind it at 5-7 State Circle and damaged a Christmas gift store at 180 Main St., a Victorian Italianate three-story structure built between 1893 and 1897.
At least six people were in the buildings when smoke started creeping out of one of the restaurant's windows, but all escaped unharmed, according to witnesses and fire officials.
The first fire chief to arrive on the scene walked into the alley beside India Palace and spotted flames shooting from a vent.
"I've been with the Fire Department for 32 years, and this is the biggest fire I've ever seen in historic Annapolis," said Capt. Leonard Clark of the Annapolis Fire Department as a pumper truck drew water from Annapolis Harbor to douse the flames.
"How do you place a dollar value on this loss? You are looking at history being destroyed right here," said Clark, 56, who has lived in the city all his life.
"Oh, god!" cried Annapolis Mayor Dean Johnson as flames 40 feet high leaped from the roof of the restaurant.
"Hey, Dean, tough first assignment," one passerby said to the recently inaugurated mayor.
Ron Hollander, a prominent Annapolis landlord who owns the connected buildings at 184-186 Main St. and 5-7 State Circle, estimated the loss at more than 1$ million.
Hollander watched as the roof of his building collapsed and sparks swirled around a firefighter pouring water into the building from atop a ladder truck.
"This is a terrible loss," Hollander said. "I'm very upset, of course. But at least everyone got out safely."
The battle against the flames became tricky at two points during the night.
A dozen firefighters were inside the three-story brick building at 186 Main St. at about 6 p.m. when the trucks on the streets below sounded their horns to call them out. Fire officials were afraid the roof was going to collapse.
At the same time, utility workers could not get close enough to the building to shut off a gas valve beneath the sidewalk. Firefighters reported seeing blue gas flames inside the burning building, but kept them under control by spraying water on them, said Lt. Tom Perry of the Annapolis Fire Department.
Later in the evening, firefighters blasted water onto the wall of the colonial-style building housing legal offices on State Circle to prevent the flames from destroying one of the oldest buildings in the city. The brick house at 1 State Circle, built in 1740, was spared.
Ann Fligsten, president of Historic Annapolis Foundation, called the destroyed buildings "critical to Main Street."
"It's like a smile without teeth," Fligsten said.
Shortly before the fire started, more than 100 state officials had gathered in the Calvert Room of the State House to watch the unveiling of portraits of two retired state officials.
People at the ceremony rushed onto the State House's lawn and watched as the windows of the squat brick townhouses filled with smoke.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening first spotted the fire through windows of his State House office.
"It's a real tragedy. But it's fortunate that no one has been hurt," he said.
Glendening said he has asked State House staff to gather "the appropriate agencies" to set up a working group to help the city and the businesses recover from the fire.
It was the first five-alarm fire in the city in 10 years. The last one of comparable size in the historic district occurred at Fran O'Brien's restaurant, which burned in the early 1980s. Maryland Inn, at the top of Main Street, burned a decade before that.
A nine-month, $5.5 million reconstruction of the street was completed in 1995. At that time, the city offered Main Street businesses connections to new water lines for sprinkler systems if the businesses paid for the connection. But fewers than a quarter of the nearly 70 businesses did so, city administrator John L. Prehn Jr. said yesterday.
Hollander, who owns the building that housed India Palace and American Spoon Foods, said his building was among those that did not have a sprinkler system installed.
"I don't think it did," he said as flames ate away at his building. "It was an old building."