Blaze blamed on flaw in wires Investigators think Annapolis fire started in restaurant's ceiling

December 17, 1997|By TaNoah Morgan and Tom Pelton | TaNoah Morgan and Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

An electrical malfunction sparked the $3 million blaze that destroyed a cluster of century-old buildings in Annapolis' historic downtown last week, the worst fire in the city in memory, fire investigators said yesterday.

Fire officials think the blaze started in the ceiling above the kitchen of the India Palace restaurant at 186 Main St., a two-story brick building constructed in 1899.

The five-alarm fire Dec. 9 spread quickly to American Spoon Foods, a connecting gourmet food store at 184 Main St., burned out lawyers' offices behind it at 5-7 State Circle and damaged a Christmas gift store at 180 Main St., a building constructed in 1885.

Fire investigators have sent parts of the wiring from the India Palace building to electrical engineers at an insurance company to determine whether they caused the fire, city officials said.

Capt. Leonard Clark, the city Fire Department spokesman, said he did not know which insurance company was analyzing the wiring and that he was unsure how old the wiring was.

Ron Hollander, who has owned the 184-186 Main St. building for at least 12 years, said he did not know the last time the building was rewired but that he was not aware of any flaws in the electrical system.

Fire investigators do not think the blaze started in the India Palace's kitchen, its appliances or ductwork, Clark said. There were no fire code violations in the building before the fire, he said.

Firefighters spent more than five hours battling last week's blaze, which was aggravated by a ruptured gas line inside one of the buildings.

Most of the 184-186 Main St. complex had been demolished by yesterday afternoon.

The building's teetering facade is firing a debate about preservation between Hollander and the city. The 98-year-old brick storefront has grand arching windows but was rebuilt in 1965.

Hollander said he applied for a demolition permit Monday to raze the building, saying he feared its facade might fall into the street and injure people.

The city sent Hollander a letter yesterday demanding that he preserve the facade and install supports to prevent it from tumbling, said Joseph A. Baker, chief of the city's Bureau of Engineering and Construction.

The facade "is a part of the character and history of Annapolis" said Donna Ware, chairwoman of the Annapolis Historic District Commission.

"I urged Mayor [Dean] Johnson to do everything we could to save it," said Ware. "It's serious business. We want to save as much as possible of the real Annapolis."

The building at 180 Main St., which housed the Christmas Spirit shop, lost its roof in the fire but will be rebuilt, city officials said. A 200-year-old wooden house at 1 State Circle was saved with minor damage.

Hollander said city efforts to keep the facade are creating a safety hazard and keeping Main Street closed during the height of the holiday shopping season.

"When public safety is involved, you must divorce yourself from emotion," said Hollander. "If the city would let me tear this down, we could open up this street in perhaps two days. I feel very badly for the tenants on Main Street [who] are losing business."

Pub Date: 12/17/97

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