Previous fires spared capital History: Venerable downtown buildings had been mostly untouched by previous blazes.

December 10, 1997|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Laura Sullivan and staff librarian Andrea Wilson contributed to this article.

Annapolis, say the historians who love the old Colonial city, owes much of its rich historical atmosphere to luck. Unlike Philadelphia and Williamsburg, for example, few serious fires have touched its 3-centuries-old core.

Yesterday's blaze, which whipped through five buildings that have stood for a century in the historic district, dwarfed any fire the Annapolis downtown has seen in decades.

A less spectacular fire in 1976, blamed on a defective chimney, severely damaged upper floors of the Maryland Inn at the top of Main Street near Church Circle. Owner Paul M. Pearson said then that the historic structure had not had a fire since it was built in the 1770s.

Before that, the former Carvel Hall Hotel, now the William Paca House, an 18th-century mansion on Prince George Street, lost a wing in a 1951 fire. In 1937, when it was the Carvel Hall Hotel, two upper floors burned.

"Annapolis has been so fortunate in the past to have had so few fires," said Cynthia McBride, a member of the board of directors of the Annapolis Chamber of Commerce and a former president of the organization.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who learned of the fire when he looked out his office window to see 50-foot flames shooting into the sky around the State House, promised state aid in restoring the city. "For decades, Annapolis has been a gracious and accommodating host to Maryland state government. Tonight, under these very difficult circumstances, the state has an opportunity to show its gratitude, and we will do so," he said.

But restoration won't fully replace the loss. "There's no modern construction in that area," said Al Luckenbach, the Anne Arundel County archaeologist. "Everything we're losing is priceless."

The last big fire to hit Annapolis' Main Street was a 1984 blaze in Fran O'Brien's, a restaurant and bar popular with summer boaters and winter legislators.

The midday blaze on March 8, like yesterday's fire, brought out hundreds of gawkers, many coming from the State House to lament the loss, though temporary, of their favorite watering hole. The gutted restaurant at 113 Main St. closed for eight months of renovations and reopened in October, just in time for the annual boat shows.

"As I recall, it didn't really have too much bearing on the business because we still had the same menu, the same food, the same cook, the same staff basically," said James Gunning, a busboy at "Frannie's" in 1984. "But it did take a while to get used to the new" layout, said Gunning, manager at the restaurant now called O'Brien's Oyster Bar and Grill.

Yesterday, employees there sent hot coffee and soup up the hill to fire and rescue workers fighting the stubborn blaze a block and a half away.

Pub Date: 12/10/97

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