Fire burns political landmark

Former Stonewall Democratic Club in Federal Hill damaged by flame, smoke

November 18, 2006|By Sumathi Reddy and Jennifer Skalka | Sumathi Reddy and Jennifer Skalka,sun reporters

The former home of the Stonewall Democratic Club - a Federal Hill political institution - suffered moderate damage yesterday after a fire broke out, overwhelming the Formstone building in smoke and flames.

At about 7:30 p.m., city firefighters were dispatched to the fire at 1212 S. Charles Street, said Chief Kevin Cartwright, a Baltimore Fire Department spokesman.

"The whole building was engulfed in smoke and heavy fire in the rear," said Baltimore Fire Captain Ray Ryan at the scene of the fire.

Cartwright said there was moderate damage to the second and third floors. There were no injuries.

The cause of the fire remains undetermined.

"It's under investigation," said Cartwright. About 36 firefighters, four fire engines, two fire trucks, a battalion chief, a safety officer and the air flex unit responded to the scene.

They established a water supply, gained entry and within 30 minutes all visible fire was extinguished, said Cartwright.

The fire did not spread to structures on either side.

By about 8:30 p.m., firefighters were standing in front of the building. Ladders extended to the second and third floors of the rowhouse structure.

Firefighters standing inside began breaking what remained of the windows and window frames about 30 minutes later.

South Charles Street, which smelled smoky and musty, was closed off to accommodate the seven fire trucks and ambulance that responded.

Although the windows were gone and it looked black and charred inside, the words "Stonewall Democratic Club" were still visible in white letters across the building's Formstone facade.

The house was headquarters of the Stonewall Democratic Club for more than 75 years, surviving as the last of its kind until it was sold in September of 2005.

Located at South Charles Street and Ropewalk Lane, the three-story building has a long, storied history as it once held sway in South Baltimore.

The club may have started as early as 1866, according to newspaper accounts. The name likely comes from Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, the Confederate general.

Gilbert A. Dailey, the son of Irish immigrants, revived the Stonewall club in 1907. He was president until 1934.

State Sen. Harry J. "Soft Shoes" McGuirk ruled the Stonewall for a generation as a benevolent, old-style political boss. He was known for convening meetings at a poker table visible from the Charles Street windows.

The clubhouse had not been used for about three years when it was sold to Gregory A. Morris last year for $315,900. In July, Morris appeared before the city zoning board seeking permission to make renovations to use the structure as an animal hospital and single-dwelling unit.

No one last night answered the phone at a number registered to Morris, who lives on the same block.

State Sen. George W. Della Jr., a former president of the club, said he was saddened to hear the news.

"I'm sorry to see that happen," said Della, whose father, George Sr., was also a former club president and state senator. "It was there for a long period of time. I spent a lot of time in that building and so did a lot of other people."

Longtime Federal Hill resident Virginia Becker, 77, walked to the scene with her dog Muffin after hearing the sirens and learning about the fire on a police scanner.

She remembers seeing lots of well-known politicians in the building, including the Dellas. But the neighborhood is changing, she said.

"Historic don't mean anything anymore," Becker said.

Renee McGuirk-Spence, daughter of the late Harry McGuirk, recalled attending many functions at the club growing up when her father ruled the place. "When they sold it last year it seemed symbolic, truly of the end of an era," said McGuirk-Spence. "This kind of closes the chapter.

"Politics is certainly not the way it used to be. It's a new time."

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