Arson damages historic Cockey's Tavern in Westminster

Loss put at $150,000

garage across street set on fire hours later

March 09, 2000|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Arson heavily damaged the historic Cockey's Tavern on Westminster's Main Street early yesterday, and a garage was set on fire across the street hours later, authorities said.

At 5 a.m. yesterday -- as about 50 firefighters had brought the restaurant blaze under control -- a second fire broke out in a two-bay wooden garage about two blocks away and across the street at Ralph Street and Winters Alley, officials said.

"We have determined the fire was arson," said Deputy Chief Allen L. Ward of the state fire marshal's office. Authorities have no suspects in the blaze, which began outside the restaurant, and caused about $150,000 damage.

Federal agency investigates

The garage fire caused about $10,000 damage.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is participating in the investigation, under a mutual-aid agreement with the agency involving commercial fires.

The two fires have led officials to take another look at the fires Dec. 23 and 24 at a Goodwill Industries retail store and at an 1860 historic building known as Rosser's Choice, properties separated by an alley in the first block of W. Main St.

The Goodwill fire has remained under investigation, while the apartment house fire was attributed to a heating unit.

"After putting 85 hours a week into something, I'm in a state of shock right now, more than I ever have been," said Robert L. Bauhof, 25, owner of Cockey's Tavern, surveying the ruined rear of the building.

He and his family have worked at the restaurant in the 200 block of E. Main St. since they bought it from a bank two years ago, reopening in June 1998.

Family helps at business

He runs the business and cooks, and his sister, brother and their spouses, and his mother and father -- a retired Woodlawn baker -- all work at the tavern, he said. Bauhof vowed to reopen as soon as possible.

Jay Graybeal, director of Historical Society of Carroll County Inc., said Cockey's Tavern began as a mansion built about 1790 by Dr. William Willis, first clerk of the Carroll County Circuit Court after the county was formed in 1837. It was used as a courtroom before the courthouse opened.

About the turn of the century, Graybeal said, the house was acquired by the Boyle family and enlarged and renovated to its present size and appearance, in a Colonial-revival style. It passed to the Hoffman family and became Hoffman Inn, he said, apparently its first commercial incarnation. Much of the interior woodwork and other features date from 1900, Graybeal said.

Before the Bauhof family bought it, Cockey's Tavern was owned by Robert Lowry, and closed suddenly before it was put up for sale. A 1994 auction failed to find a buyer.

`Hard to bring back'

"We bought the place, because we are Westminster people and wanted to bring it back," Bauhof said. "This will be hard to bring back quickly."

Yesterday, the front of the building looked almost normal, with a hand-lettered "Closed due to fire" sign on the door under its Burgundy canopy.

Inside, two front dining rooms and the bar escaped heavy damage, with tables still set, including floral arrangements. But Bauhof moved a glass to show how the tablecloth was brown. The black foyer floor should be white tile.

He showed how the fire had heavily damaged the 100-year-old rear section of the building, with blackened timbers and ceilings, broken glass, and water and debris everywhere.

The fire ruined his stove, freezers and food supplies. The cellar was full of water and, on the second floor, doors were off their hinges to the women's room and his office, where a computer and an open check register were charred.

He had been at the scene of his restaurant since he was called at home about 3: 30 a.m.

Bauhof praised firefighters who saved the building, noting the front part has more wood and less masonry than the back and could have been destroyed had the fire reached it.

Hardwood floor spared

"The wonderful hardwood floor didn't get touched," he said. "They were very, very fast, and we're very very grateful."

He was awaiting his insurance adjuster, and said he is insured.

The restaurant was close to breaking even in its second year -- though Bauhof was told the norm is five years. It seats 65 downstairs, and two 50-seat rooms available upstairs for private parties have done a good business.

"We should be starting on dinner now," Bauhof said, looking at the mess. "This was my passion -- blood, sweat and tears for two years. We put everything we had into this place."

R. Douglas Mathias, executive director of the nonprofit Greater Westminster Development Corp., said, "We are very saddened by the fire at Cockey's Tavern and we offer our assistance to the business owners.

"We would hope that, since it has been ruled an arson, that [those responsible] would be apprehended without delay before causing any damage to any other historic properties in our city."

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