Fire still scars Main St.

Rebuilding process in Annapolis is proceeding slowly

November 26, 2006|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Sun

At the site of the five-alarm fire that ravaged three buildings on Main Street in Annapolis a year ago, there are only small signs of improvement.

Beams have been hoisted to replace part of the roof of the former Main Street Ice Cream store.

The property that once housed Zachary's Jewelers is now a vacant lot, filled with debris and construction equipment. The opening has exposed the charred wood remaining on the side wall of the third building damaged by the fire, the former Candy Factory. A torn blue tarp hangs precariously from its second floor.

While renovations of Main Street Ice Cream are proceeding, unsettled insurance claims have stalled work at the two other buildings damaged in the blaze that tore through a section of Main Street on Nov. 25, 2005.

None of the three building projects has met the timetable announced by Mayor Ellen O. Moyer. The slow progress illustrates the challenges of quickly rebuilding in an historic district.

Ray Weaver, a spokesman for Moyer, said that the mayor's May 1 target date to have the ice cream store at 128 Main St. reopened, renovations under way at the Candy Factory at 118 Main St. and a design approved for a new building on the vacant lot at 126 Main St. was more of a "wish list" than a pledge.

"I think it was everybody's hope that it would happen that way," Weaver said. "The insurance adjustment thing just took forever."

Although the Annapolis Historic Review Commission granted conditional approval for the exterior repairs in April, the properties are privately owned, Weaver said, and the city can't do much more than wait.

The fire, which was caused by an electrical wiring problem in the first floor, broke out on a chilly Friday night after Thanksgiving. As flames engulfed the building, crowds gathered at both ends of Main Street to watch firefighters battle for hours to bring the fire under control.

None of the buildings had a sprinkler system. The three wood-frame buildings were connected. The fire recalled a December 1997 blaze that destroyed a cluster of century-old buildings on Main Street. Construction on a mixed-use building to replace those structures has just gotten under way this year.

Renovations at the building that housed Main Street Ice Cream should be finished by late February, said Charles W. Smith III, whose family has owned the building since 1904.

Smith is not sure yet who the new tenants will be. A retailer will occupy the first floor, and the two upper-level floors will be converted into one apartment, he said. The renovations, which will cost more than $700,000, will include a new sprinkler system and firewall.

Smith's grandfather bought the building in 1904, but it dates from the early 1800s. Smith was matter-of-fact about the fire's aftermath.

"It's something you wish you didn't have to go through," he said.

City officials are working with him to find a window maker to restore the dormer windows to their historical six-on-six pane style, said Donna Hole, the city's historic preservation officer.

Although the historic review commission approved plans to restore the candy store's windows in April, proposals to renovate the structure and construct a new building at the old Zachary's site have not moved forward because of unsettled insurance claims, said the architect, Catherine Purple Cherry.

The owner of the building, Harvey Blonder, did not return calls for comment. He previously has said he was wrestling with insurance disputes.

Zachary's owner Steve Samaras, who lost at least 1,100 pieces of jewelry in the fire, settled his insurance claim for losses in October. He plans to remain in his new location at the corner of Main Street and Market Space, also owned by Blonder.

He said business has boomed there - a fire sale on Nov. 18 generated his store's highest one-day sales ever. In February, he'll begin a major renovation to make the interior resemble a luxury yacht.

Samaras said the death of his father a week before the fire kept things in perspective.

"It's just been a humbling and an incredibly emotional year of my life," he said.

While neighboring business owners complained in the first months after the fire about the blocked-off sidewalk driving away customers, merchants said last week that they understand that it takes time to rebuild.

Jerry Hardesty, owner of O'Brien's Oyster Bar and Restaurant, said he knew the May timeline was too ambitious. Any type of construction in the historic district needs extra time for approvals, he said.

"Everybody's got to be patient," he said.

In the meantime, Annapolis officials' effort to help other businesses avoid such fire damage and install sprinklers has gotten only a lukewarm response.

"The problem that we have now is that the cost of construction has gone up dramatically in the past two years," said Mike Miron, director of economic development for Annapolis.

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