Emerging from the ashes

Ellicott City: As buildings damaged by the Main Street fire in November are restored or rebuilt, merchants wonder whether the character of their historic district will change.

May 16, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Six months after fire swept through a block of buildings in historic Ellicott City, hope blooms -- and disappointment lingers.

The promise of normality is on the horizon for some Main Street property owners, as construction workers put the finishing touches on one damaged building and prepare to rebuild another.

But the owner of Main Street Blues -- who in January bought the fire-scarred building that houses his restaurant, with hopes of renovating it and starting anew -- is finding the expense of rebuilding too great.

Dennis Martin, whose restaurant was nearly 2 years old at the time of the fire, said he is talking to people interested in buying the building. He doesn't know whether he will stay as a renter.

He said he took out a loan to buy the building and renovate it but found that it was in worse shape than it appeared because damage was hidden within the walls. Martin declined to specify how much he had planned to spend for renovations, but he estimated that the cost would be $120,000 more than he could afford.

Fire officials think the blaze started when a discarded cigarette ignited trash behind Main Street Blues.

Since then, Martin said, he has had "one negative surprise after another" in his attempt to reopen the restaurant.

"It's going on seven months, and I hate to say this, but I'm losing interest," he said. "Right now, I've got to do something with my life."

The popular restaurant, which presented blues and jazz shows, wouldn't be the only business to fall victim to the fire. The owners of Nature Nook decided shortly after the fire not to reopen. The owners of Legends aren't sure what they will do.

Some businesses have rebounded.

Rugs to Riches, a home-furnishings store, moved into another Main Street site in March.

Spring House Designs, which formerly sold artwork, gifts and furniture, moved into the nearby Mount Ida Mansion. Its owners no longer accept walk-in customers and concentrate on creating artwork and floral arrangements, and teaching art classes.

The owner of The Source Unlimited, an interior design company that suffered smoke and water damage, is renovating the building. Bill Andrews said his store will reopen but that he has not set a date.

`Eclectic flavor'

Main Street shop owners and employees are curious and a little anxious about the changes prompted by the fire, particularly what the out-of-commission buildings will look like when finished and which businesses will move in.

Two of the damaged buildings have not lined up commercial tenants, but one property owner said he is interested in large national chains and local companies.

Some merchants on Main Street -- which is notable for its shops full of antiques, collectibles and off-beat merchandise -- are hoping for small-scale entrepreneurs.

"My preference is that Ellicott City maintain its eclectic flavor," said Karen Michener, proprietor of Nonpareil Vintage Clothing. "We don't want just another suburban mall environment. If you've got the Gap there, big corporations, then the soul is gone."

Bobbi Altevogt, a saleswoman at Discoveries, said she will be glad when the buildings are repaired and back in use. She has worked in businesses along Main Street for 30 years and said the area suffers when a section is unused.

"Ellicott City is a unit, and when part of the unit is gone, you feel discombobulated," she said.

`Required a lot of work'

The building once occupied by Spring House Designs is nearly ready for a commercial tenant, and residents are living in the three apartments on the second and third floors. Co-owner Charles Wehland said it cost about $150,000 to restore.

One wall was damaged by the heat of the fire, and the carpet, drywall and many of the appliances were ruined, he said.

"Ours didn't have to be demolished, thank God, but it certainly required a lot of work," he said. "I'm just happy that things are coming around."

Next door is a gaping hole where Bruce Taylor's buildings used to stand. Demolished in January because the damage was too great, they will be reconstructed as one building, starting in about six weeks. The cost is expected to be about $800,000.

Old Town Construction, which rebuilt Wehland's structure, is working on Taylor's property. Jared Spahn, co-owner of the company, hopes to finish by November.

"I would love to see a Smith & Hawken move down here, or an L. L. Bean, something that's very traditional," he said.

Working around flood plain

Rebuilding Taylor's property was initially a tricky prospect because it sits in an area that has flooded before.

Under state and federal legislation, a structure can't be built in a flood plain unless it's 2 feet above the water line. In 1972, during flooding from Tropical Storm Agnes, Taylor's buildings were in 6 feet of water, Spahn said.

To follow the regulations, Spahn's builders would have to reconstruct the structure on stilts 8 feet in the air.

Howard County officials found another way.

Working with the Maryland Department of the Environment, they determined that county government can decide how to rebuild because the site is in a historic district.

Stilts will not be required. Instead, construction workers will use heavy, water-resistant materials.

"Everyone on the government side has been bending over backwards to help out, because everyone loves Ellicott City," said Spahn. "It's such a neat, eclectic place."

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