Clipper Mill rises from the ashes of a fatal fire 10 years ago

September 10, 2005|By JACQUES KELLY

I HAD BEEN OUT with old friends on that rainy Saturday night in September 10 years ago. It didn't take much to induce sleep after a merry downtown dinner and a couple of drinks.

The sound of the phone changed all that. It was Lowell Sunderland, The Sun's night editor, with the news that an old foundry in Woodberry was burning, massively. Could I get over there pronto, and phone in something? I walked outside and heard a distant siren wail, nothing new in a city, but when the noise does not stop, you recognize trouble.

I don't drive and there was not a cab in sight. I waved down a passing van, filled with a family and children eating pizza. I asked the father-driver, whose name I never caught, if he would get me from Charles Village to Woodberry. This Samaritan hauled me to the 41st Street Bridge, where I thanked him and took off on foot.

Minutes before, the foundry's enormous Victorian stone front wall had collapsed and killed 25-year-old firefighter Eric D. Schaefer.

When the fire started, the Clipper Mill, as it was known generally, was then a warren of artists' studios cobbled out of the ancient Poole and Hunt foundry. It had been a 19th-century industrial campus peppered with charming buildings straight out of the Iron Age. Thanks to its location within a small hollow of the Jones Falls Valley, it was little known except to neighbors in Woodberry and Hampden and the animals in Druid Hill Park. Only a short while before the fire, I'd spent a delightful Sunday visiting this department store of artistic creativity.

The night of the fire I phoned in details from a Union Avenue bar and the next day returned to the site. A couple weeks later, a small informal memorial would be erected to the fallen firefighter. I recently learned that his life is to be commemorated more substantially, in a stained-glass window at the entrance to the property.

In the past decade, the property changed hands and is now being developed by Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse as a place to live and work within the old industrial valley.

Only this summer has the campus taken full form, although it is far from complete. I stopped by yesterday and saw one finished building now being marketed as the Millrace Condos. Ryland Homes are sprouting up toward the Television Hill side of the property and an enormous building, once known as the Rock Gym, is being refitted with new steelwork.

Over the past year, I visited artist John Gutierrez, one of the artists who was working at the Clipper Mill site before the fire. He's returned and owns an impressive metalworking and design studio on the property. He's also making the metal balconies that will go on the condominium building.

I've also heard from Norma Wallis, a ceramics artist and potter, also a veteran of the fire who just moved into a new studio here. Other longtime Clipper Mill artists are Chris Gavin and Paul Daniel.

It's taken a good while to remake this byway of Baltimore's interesting geography, which I doubt will ever be well-known or frequented by hordes of people.

And, as I observed the construction crews laboring away, I couldn't help think about that humid September night and the death of Eric Schaefer.

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