Annapolis sets plans to rebuild shops after fire

Mayor hopes most of the work will be done by tourist season


Less than three days after a stubborn fire raced through three businesses in Annapolis' historic district, city officials set a May target for having much of the rebuilding done.

"I know that's a little unrealistic," Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said at a news conference yesterday held to discuss the five-alarm Friday night blaze.

But the mayor said she wants to stick to an aggressive schedule that by the start of tourist season in May would see at least one refurbished building reopened, the second close behind and a third - on the site of a structure being demolished because it is unsalvageable - ready to rise from an approved design.

The fire was first spotted about 8 p.m. Friday near the bottom of the Main Street hill in one of the most carefully preserved historic districts in the country, a bustling area in the shadow of the State House. The blaze destroyed a building housing a jewelry store and caused substantial damage to the buildings on either side of it that were home to an ice cream store and a candy shop.

Even as investigators sifted through rubble yesterday to determine the cause, the blaze has rekindled discussion of retrofitting upper floors of historic structures with sprinkler systems.

Lessons from arguments after a 1997 holiday season fire up the street - only now is a building plan working toward required approvals - led city officials to spend the weekend planning how to expedite rebuilding. City agencies are working closely with Catherine Purple Cherry Architects of Annapolis and builder Skip Gardiner of Crofton to move the job along, Moyer said.

"Mine is the only store I can envision being ready by May," said Howard Smith, a member of a family trust that owns the building that housed Main Street Ice Cream at 128 Main St., the least-damaged of the structures. The property has been in the family for 101 years, he said. The business is operated by Harvey Blonder and Mike Greentree.

But Blonder, who owns the building that was leased to Zachary's Exquisite Jewelry at 122 Main St. and who leases 118 Main St. next door for his Candy Factory, said he will do his best to get his candy shop running by spring, too.

By Friday, Zachary's will reopen at 100 Main St., at the base of the hill, displacing City Dock Outfitters, another Blonder business.

"We are going to close up our clothing shop, forgo our profits, so that Zachary's will not lose its customer base," Blonder said.

Steve Samaras, owner of Zachary's, said he is sure he lost a few pieces of jewelry in the blaze. But all items on order and anything not part of regular inventory was safely tucked in a vault.

The fire started in the structural network between the first-floor ceiling and the second-story floor, at the front of the jewelry store, said Capt. Joseph F. Martin III of the Annapolis Fire Department.

When firefighters arrived, it had spread significantly through the upper floors of the tightly nestled buildings, he said.

A pocket of dead space between the ceiling and floor - which in old buildings often has tinder-dry dust and cobwebs - allowed the fire to burn horizontally, undetected at first by the people inside. Space between the older buildings' interior walls and exteriors acted like a chimney, said Fire Chief Jerry Smith.

Federal, state and Anne Arundel County agencies are helping Annapolis fire officials search for the cause, initially suspected to be electrical. Fire officials said there is no way of knowing the condition of old electrical systems. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries in the blaze, which caused at least $1 million in damage.

Few old buildings on Main Street have sprinklers in their upper stories, which typically are used only for storage.

The first recent push for sprinklers came with the 1995 rebricking of Main Street. The city invited property owners to run water lines for sprinklers while the street and sidewalks were torn up, but few did.

The second push came after the 1997 fire that destroyed a historic structure near the top of Main Street.

As officials have sought to persuade building owners to turn the upper floors into apartments, the city created a revolving fund last July to offer loans to help pay for sprinklers. Moyer said the fund has $80,000. But adding sprinklers will cost nearly $40,000 for just one of the two applicants so far, she said.

Under city code, new or renovated buildings must have sprinklers on all floors, said Mike Mallinoff, chief of the Department of Neighborhoods and Environment.

A recent inventory showed that only 19 of the 76 commercial buildings on Main Street have sprinklers. Three more under construction will, said Mike Miron, director of economic development for the city.

"You may see more people interested," said Samaras, owner of Zachary's.

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