Out of ashes, Main St. hopes

Leaders, preservationists, architects see rehabs as rare opportunities to burnish Annapolis' image


Three building projects on Annapolis' Main Street represent a rare opportunity to polish the district's distinct architectural character, according to city leaders, preservationists and architects.

"This is the one opportunity we'll have to create something special," Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said, adding that she has urged architects, business owners and officials involved in the projects to think big: "Be creative, innovative, inspiring. This is a capital city. Downtown has got to be special."

Nobody is sure what lies ahead for a huge burned hole on lower Main Street, a site ravaged Nov. 25 by a five-alarm.

Two buildings are being renovated, and an architect is developing plans for the space that was occupied by a third building, which was demolished.

A few doors away, a pair of adjoining shabby storefronts, 136 and 138 Main St., are undergoing a major rehab - or reinvention - where Ritz Camera used to be. The Formstone on one facade will be a thing of the past.

Near the top of Main Street, the grassy lot that slopes from State Circle to Main is being developed as a mixed-use building. It will front the shopping street and the government circle.

Moyer said this week that she was impatient to see quicker rebuilding and replacing of the fire-damaged structures at 118-128 Main St., just a stone's throw away from City Dock. "I would have hoped we'd be farther along," she said.

As of now, two of the three storefronts on the fire site are gutted facades, and the center building is completely gone. Seven months after the city's spring target date for reopening one of them, there are few signs of progress. The least-damaged building, 128 Main St., formerly an ice cream shop, was just issued a building permit, city officials said, to rehabilitate the facade and structure.

Catherine Purple Cherry, the architect in charge of designs for the fire-damaged properties, said the concept for the site of the demolished building, where Zachary's jewelry stop stood before it was relocated, is in development.

"We're creating a very exciting use which will tie in an existing structure," she said.

Cherry declined to say just what is planned for the site.

Harvey Blonder, the owner of the former Zachary's site and a candy shop destroyed next door, said he was wrestling with insurance disputes and hoped the proposed design would comply with the commission's guidelines, which govern exterior changes in the three-century-old historic district.

Gregory A. Stiverson, president of the nonprofit Historic Annapolis Foundation, said the three burned Main Street addresses, especially the vacant lot, call for vision at the drawing board.

"This is an opportunity to really make a statement. Rarely does one [architect] get to work on three buildings in a row on a street like this," Stiverson said. "There's a sensitive rehab for two buildings and an open canvas in the middle. That would press the mettle of any architect.

"An architect has to come to grips creating a 21st-century building that works with the 18th- and 19th-[century] facades around it - a new building that speaks to our time and works with the streetscape," he added.

Charlie Berliner, the contractor working with architect Gary Schwerzler on the gutted 136 and 138 Main St. addresses, said they were neglected structures worn by time and in need of work. Last month, he said, the job began.

"They will be completely rehabbed," Berliner said. "The Formstone will be gone. 138 Main, the uphill one, will have a new decorative-wooded storefront. The windows will be refurbished, the roof will be replaced and the stucco will be cleaned and repaired."

City leaders are wary of not repeating what happened at 7 State Circle, where a planned redevelopment languished for years at the scene of a 1997 fire that destroyed an Indian restaurant, a gourmet food store and lawyers' offices.

The 7 State Circle project, which will front on Main Street with retail space, and on State Circle with office space, is also seen as a blend of the past and present.

Jack Helman, an architect for Columbia-based Siena Development Corp., said he and an Annapolis architectural firm, Bohl Architects, have been mindful of the nearby State House as they design a mixed-use building with modern touches, such as automated underground parking with 18 spaces.

"The facade is broken up into two parts, with four stories on Main Street and three stories on State Circle," Helman said. "We worked diligently with the historic preservation commission to create a concept that integrated with the historic fabric. [Architect] Chip Bohl said he tried to re-create a ghost of the old building."

The project is likely to cause higher dirt and noise levels with trucks in the area until its scheduled completion in about a year.

Said Moyer: "We're not going to have this opportunity again, to make lemonade out of what has been dealt us."


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