Fire damages city building with historic cast-iron facade

Preservationists seeking to save 1879 structure

January 20, 2000|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Preservationists are scrambling to save one of Baltimore's last buildings with a cast-iron storefront after a fire extensively damaged the historic structure yesterday.

In its 121-year history, the five-story building at 423 W. Baltimore St. housed one of the city's largest beer-bottling plants, one of the world's largest umbrella makers and a clothing factory.

Today, the building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places for being one of 20 Baltimore structures with a cast-iron storefront, houses a Clark's Express coffee shop, artists' studios and storage space.

The fire, of unknown origin, started at 3 a.m. and engulfed the building, sending flames shooting into the downtown skyline and smoke wafting across much of Central and West Baltimore.

"We got in there and started making some headway, but during the process of ventilation, the fire just took off," said Inspector Michael Maybin, a Fire Department spokesman.

It took about 100 firefighters more than four hours to bring the blaze under control, but not before the roof and three upper stories collapsed, Maybin said.

Two tenants escaped the fire, but two firefighters were slightly injured when they slipped on ice while battling the flames in 20-degree temperatures.

Built in 1879 as a three-story brick warehouse, the building was remodeled in 1893, with three floors added, cast iron attached to the first floor and sheet metal put on the upper floors, according to the National Register.

"It was a unique building. There was nothing like it on Baltimore Street," said James D. Dilts, author of "Baltimore's Cast Iron Buildings."

The building's historical significance touched off a flurry of activity yesterday by city housing officials and preservationists trying to save it.

"It's important, because we once had hundreds of cast-iron buildings," said Bill Pensik, president of Baltimore Heritage Foundation.

Two buildings with cast-iron facades across the street from the site of yesterday's fire were destroyed in March 1998 when soaking rain and high wind weakened the Morton Schenk Co.'s roof, causing it to collapse. Building inspectors then condemned an adjacent structure.

Pensik said Baltimore was the cast-iron architectural center of the world in the 19th century, and several metal plants exported the material to cities worldwide.

The use of cast iron -- iron shaped by hand -- in construction set the stage for the modern-day steel skyscraper, Pensik said.

"Any cast iron is very rare and endangered, and it's a real treasure that Baltimore has," said Kathleen Kotarba, executive director of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.

City building inspectors who toured the building yesterday deemed it unstable but not in imminent danger of collapse, said Zack Germroth, a Housing Authority spokesman.

City officials met with the building's owner, Judith Siegel, and gave her 10 days to decide whether she wanted the building rehabilitated or demolished.

Germroth said Siegel would have access to city, state and federal tax credits, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars over several years, if she chooses to rehabilitate the building.

Siegel was not available for comment yesterday.

The Fire Department did not provide damage estimates yesterday, but the property is valued at slightly more than $96,000, according to city records.

Yesterday, west-side merchants said they were stunned as they watched the building burn.

"We have lost a precious commodity, one less building from our past," said Judy Boulmetis, owner of Hippodrome Hatters, a block away.

Sun staff researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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