Fire closes Annapolis shop

Owner of building was in talks to install sprinklers after Main Street blaze last year

December 19, 2006|By Anica Butler | Anica Butler,sun reporter

After seeing three historic buildings destroyed or seriously damaged in a large blaze on Annapolis' Main Street just before the holidays last year, Joe Rubino decided to install sprinklers in his Main Street properties.

He had been in talks with city officials, he said and had consulted engineers. But because it is a long, difficult and expensive process, there still were no sprinklers when a fire broke out early yesterday at 149 Main St., one of Rubino's buildings and home to the Chesapeake Trading Co.

"Fire catches everyone's attention," he said, adding that he at last will be installing a sprinkler system as he repairs the fire-damaged structure. "It is a shame this had to happen."

The fire broke out on the second floor about 2:40 a.m., according to the Annapolis Fire Department. About 60 firefighters from the city, Anne Arundel County and the Naval Academy responded to the two-alarm blaze, said Capt. Ed Hadaway.

The fire was under control in about 20 minutes; the cause was not known. No one was injured, and the Fire Department estimated the damage at $250,000. Yesterday, upstairs windows were broken out of the building, and smoke damage was visible on the white facade, though it remained intact.

While the second floor, which was being used for storage, bore the brunt of the fire, the third floor, which was vacant, also was damaged. The first floor houses Chesapeake Trading Co., which sells clothing, books, jewelry and wooden carvings of cranes, among other items.

Si Boettner, the store's owner, said that the store's clothing was damaged by smoke and probably will have to be discarded but that many other items are salvageable, including wood carvings and jewelry. His store sustained only smoke and water damage, but Boettner said he would not be able to reopen in that location for at least six months, until the rest of the building is repaired.

Boettner said he was hoping for the best when he received word of the fire about 4 a.m.

"You tend to minimize it in your mind," he said. "We thought we could just sweep this away."

Smoke and water also damaged the upper floors of the building next door, but Rubino, who is part owner of that building, said he thought the first-floor art gallery there would be able to reopen soon.

The city has been offering low-interest loans to property owners who want to install sprinklers, but interest has been scant. By last month, only nine owners had expressed interest; four had received loans averaging $40,000 each.

Installing sprinklers can be expensive, because many of the historic buildings do not have utilities or water pipes on their upper floors, Rubino said.

Working in buildings without sprinklers is a gamble for the Main Street merchants.

"It is part of being in a historic district. It is just a chance we all take," said Cecilia Benalcazar, owner of Main Street Mini-Mart.

Boettner said yesterday that he has two options in trying to make the best of the remaining shopping days until Christmas. He can take his salvageable merchandise to his store in St. Michaels, or he can try to find another storefront in Annapolis to rent. His preference is the latter, he said.

"It has been a good location for us," he said. "The other downtown merchants are terrific."

Across the street, the buildings destroyed in last year's five-alarm fire at 118, 126 and 128 Main St. are being replaced or renovated.

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