Cooperation promised on rebuilding in Annapolis

November 27, 2005|By BRADLEY OLSON | BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTER

Only a few hours after firefighters brought under control a blaze that tore through three buildings Friday night and early yesterday in historic Annapolis, an owner of one of the damaged properties vowed to rebuild on a fast track. But in Annapolis -- and more specifically, in one of the nation's most protected historic districts -- there may not be a fast track.

Property owners and developers have sparred with preservationists in recent years over the area's stringent zoning guidelines. After a 1997 fire that destroyed several businesses across from the State House, the owner, city officials and the historic preservation commission wrangled for years over what to do with the property.

The dispute moved in and out of court, and the damaged buildings -- a few hundred feet from the most recent fire -- were demolished. The lot on Main Street remains vacant.

Regulations governing growth in an area of boutiques and restaurants could test the patience of those involved in the coming months. But city officials, residents, property owners and preservationists promised more cooperation yesterday, saying that many had learned from the rancorous squabble eight years ago.

"We're going to rebuild them, and they'll be bigger and better than ever," said Harvey Blonder, who said he owns one of the buildings and holds a long-term lease on the other two. "The mayor, the mayor's aide and the chief building inspector have already told me that they can work with us as quickly as possible to get this place rebuilt in record time."

Blonder said he didn't foresee a problem complying with historic district regulations.

Preliminary estimates put the structural damage from the fire at $1 million, said Capt. Joseph F. Martin, spokesman for the Annapolis Fire Department. Blonder said total damage reached several million dollars.

Two firefighters suffered minor injuries fighting the blaze, Martin said.

The fire revived the question of whether the city council should require downtown businesses to install sprinkler systems. Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said Friday night that the council would consider the idea soon.

Dean L. Johnson, Moyer's predecessor as mayor, said yesterday that a commission formed after the 1997 fire recommended that such rules be adopted.

Investigators said electrical wiring outside the 125-year-old wood-frame building at 118 Main St. that houses the Candy Factory might have started the fire, although the cause had not been determined.

Firefighters were called about 8 p.m. as the blaze spread to two adjacent buildings -- Zachary's Jewelry at 122 Main St. and Main Street Ice Cream at 128 Main St.

Power was out on the lower end of Main Street until yesterday evening. One lane of Main Street around the damaged structures was opened for vehicles, although the sidewalk was closed.

The brick Zachary's Jewelry building, built in 1940, was deemed structurally unsound by engineers, and firefighters planned to pull part of the facade from the building today.

The wood-frame Main Street Ice Cream building, which dates to 1860, and the Candy Factory building, which dates to 1880, were deemed structurally sound.

The 1997 fire caused $3 million in damage, but for some, what followed was as much a disaster as the blaze.

Ronald Hollander, the owner of 184-186 Main St., wanted to demolish the property's remaining facade, but the request was denied based on regulations for the historic district.

In 1998, after some bricks were knocked down by a storm, the city ordered what remained of the building demolished.

History is a way of life in Annapolis. Settled in 1649, it functioned briefly as the nation's capital, from November 1783 to August 1784, when George Washington resigned as commander in chief of the Continental Army and the Treaty of Paris was ratified to end the Revolutionary War. While other Colonial towns such as Philadelphia have ballooned into major cities, Annapolis has remained a small and intimate place. It is also home to the U.S. Naval Academy and St. John's College, institutions steeped in tradition.

William Schmickle, chairman of the Annapolis Historic Preservation Commission, said his group wants to ensure that the city maintains its heritage. "What we're looking at is a tragedy for a historic district -- one of the most important historic districts in the nation -- where fire has done major damage to properties," he said. "We will have to take a very close look at what can be done on these properties from here on."

Schmickle said the commission would hold a public hearing on the property, possibly as soon as mid-December.

As firefighters worked at the site yesterday morning, onlookers came by to view the charred buildings.

Fred Schultz, an Annapolis resident who remembers the 1997 blaze, said the latest fire would be another blow to the community. "People around here have a better sense of history than others, and watching history burn up before your eyes is pretty dramatic," he said.

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