Annapolis fire stirs up Ellicott City memories

Businesspeople affected in 1999 feel sympathy


Fear -- and more than a little sympathy -- were among the reactions from Ellicott City merchants as they heard of the five-alarm blaze that ripped through three stores on historic Main Street in Annapolis the day after Thanksgiving.

"When I heard `historic district' and `fire,' my stomach just turned over," said Barbara Andrews, co-owner of the Source Unlimited, an interior design studio on Ellicott City's Main Street.

The Ellicott City business community has been twice burned.

On Nov. 9, 1999, a discarded cigarette ignited a six-alarm blaze that destroyed five businesses and caused an estimated $2 million in damage on historic Main Street.

In November 1984, a six-alarm fire destroyed seven Main Street businesses.

"My immediate reaction was thinking about what happened to us in Ellicott City during our fire," in 1999, said Mojan Bagha, owner of Main Street Oriental Rugs. "I can say that as a businessman, I can sympathize and feel for the people this is happening to in Annapolis."

Some Ellicott City merchants said the recovery from damage caused by the 1999 blaze was burdensome and affected the business district for months -- a future that Annapolis may face.

It took Andrews four years to rebuild her business, which she said was heavily damaged.

"We were not gutted, but it would have been a lot easier if we were," she said. "We were in 5 feet of water, and we had terrible smoke and water damage, and our electrical system was bad."

Merchants talked about slow business in the district for months after the fire.

They said many shoppers declined to venture into the historic downtown area for months, but they did have their share of sightseers who stopped to get a glimpse of the charred remains of the burned buildings.

"It was just a mess down here for a while," said Shelley Harris, president of the Ellicott City Business Association and co-owner of Caplan's Antiques.

Harris, whose business is next door to one structure that burned, said it took about a year for many of the businesses to rebound.

Merchants said their recovery was a combination of tenacity and strength that they drew from fellow store owners and the community.

Harris said a school painted a holiday mural on a wooden fence outside the burned-out buildings. Other acts of kindness included fundraisers, churches and businesses that offered of storage space to displaced merchants, and others offering a facility for a "fire sale."

The district also was able to hold its Midnight Madness event, a holiday shopping season celebration during which businesses stay open until midnight.

"It meant a lot to have the festival," Harris said. "It's saying that we are here, and most of us are fine."

But the recovery did not come easily.

Andrews recalled months of sifting through the remains of her store with no heat and no electricity.

She reopened the interior design studio in 2003, and she also opened a Victorian tea room.

"We really loved the city, and we had a wonderful building," she said. "We just didn't give up."

Not all were success stories. The Main Street Blues restaurant and some other establishments affected by the fire never reopened.

The building where the blaze started was torn down.

But the demolished structure has been replaced by a three-story building with a beige concrete facade, large windows and balconies with decorative wrought iron. It was built from a 1920s-era picture of the structure when it was a department store.

Shoemaker Country II, the new building's first tenant, opened in 2003.

John Shoemaker, the store's manager, said many people came to marvel at the new design, and others shopped during the grand opening.

Shoemaker said that as the business marks its two-year anniversary, people have not forgotten the fire.

"A lot of people just like to check out the building and see what it is like," he said.

In addition to reopening buildings damaged by the fire, Ellicott City has undergone renovations that include sprinkler systems in some stores.

A water-system upgrade last summer would be important if another fire threatens the historic buildings, merchants said.

As Annapolis begins its business-district recovery, Bagha said he is confident that the city will revive.

"It happened in Ellicott City," he said. "I am positive that the phoenix will rise from the ashes in Annapolis."

Sun researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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