Marks of blaze remain visible

Impact: Changes to the city landscape - and opportunities missed - can be traced to the Burnt District Commission formed a century ago.

The Great Baltimore Fire

February 07, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Ever wonder why North Charles Street narrows above Fayette Street? Because that's where the Great Fire of 1904 stopped - and so did the subsequent widening of Charles.

The traffic jam-inducing bottleneck is one of many lingering signs of the Burnt District, the 70-block swath of downtown Baltimore that marks the fire's destructive path 100 years ago.

Many streets are wider only because of the fire. Many buildings are standing today only because the fire destroyed 1,500 others and created a huge demand for new construction.

Baltimore's core was largely rebuilt in two years. Yet, despite the quick changes city fathers made, some current observers wish there had been more.

"They had a chance probably to widen all those streets, maybe put in a boulevard with garden squares down the middle," said Frank R. Shivers Jr., author of Walking in Baltimore: An Intimate Guide to the Old City.

They didn't widen every street or put in a boulevard. But by the time the Burnt District Commission finished its work, a dozen streets had been widened or extended. Modern piers replaced the wharf area along Pratt Street.

Impatient merchants successfully fought off attempts to enlarge Baltimore Street, but the list of widened or extended streets included Charles Street from Lombard to Fayette; Light Street from Baltimore to Pratt; and St. Paul Street from Baltimore to Fayette.

New buildings included a B&O Railroad headquarters at Baltimore and Charles and, catty-corner, the Acropolis-esque Savings Bank of Baltimore.

Several "fireproof" skyscrapers lost their shells in the fire but not their steel skeletons, and so were rebuilt. Those included the Continental building at 201 E. Baltimore St. It still stands.

Other edifices were damaged but not so severely. One example is the former Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust building at Redwood and Calvert; it is now a nightclub.

Some of what was rebuilt has been razed and rebuilt again. The once-modern wharves became decrepit over time and have evolved into a tourist zone anchored by Harborplace.

And beginning in the 1960s, 33 acres were largely cleared for Charles Center. Among the landmarks knocked down was the old O'Neill's Department Store. During the fire, owner Thomas O'Neill prayed furiously and later said divine intervention saved his store - but nothing could save it from urban renewal.

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