Fire in Annapolis Historic district inferno: In their analysis of the tragedy, officials need to focus on the need for sprinklers.

December 11, 1997

THE DAMAGE INFLICTED by Tuesday night's five-alarm fire that destroyed a chunk of Annapolis' historic downtown can be repaired.

Thanks to the skilled efforts of the state capital city's fire department, no lives were lost and no one was injured in a fire described as one of the most destructive in modern times.

Firefighters also kept the blaze on Main Street and adjacent State Circle from growing into a worse conflagration that could have destroyed more of the city.

The loss of three buildings in the middle of Main Street heightens concern about the importance of preserving historic structures. Long-time Annapolitans can recall a day when downtown properties didn't elicit much concern.

Ancient indifferences have now melted away. The breathless TV bulletins and statewide concern about Tuesday's fire reflected how precious Annapolis' gingerbread downtown has become to all of Maryland.

Preserving such buildings is not just a matter of aesthetics. It is good business. The economic revitalization of Maryland's smaller cities -- Ellicott City, Westminster, Havre de Grace, Frederick, St. Michael's -- has been due in large measure to their healthy inventory of historic and architecturally significant structures. Not all preservation battles involve zoning controversies or careless redevelopers. These buildings must also be protected from disasters such as fires.

While the cause of Tuesday's fire is under investigation, fire officials are convinced that had sprinklers been in place at the India Palace restaurant, where the blaze began, there would have been far less damage to the building. That, in turn, would have slowed the spread to adjacent buildings that housed American Spoon Foods, attorneys' offices and the Christmas Spirit shop.

Annapolis' building code mirrors the state's code by requiring sprinklers in certain buildings, depending on use, materials, number of exits and other factors. City officials estimate that about one-third of the buildings on Main Street are currently equipped with sprinklers. They want to see more, particularly in older structures that house high-traffic businesses and contain old electrical systems and plenty of dry timber.

Many business and property owners resist installing sprinklers. They consider them to be expensive -- up to $50,000, city officials say -- and of little use.

This fire should make them reconsider their positions. City officials have been accommodating to date -- perhaps too accommodating. This tragedy should spur the administration of Annapolis' new mayor, Dean L. Johnson, to insist that sprinklers be installed when old commercial and business buildings are renovated.

Pub Date: 12/11/97

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