Winds of Change
East Baltimore Street
February 5, 2017
On the Sunday morning of Feb. 7, 1904, a fire was reported at the John E. Hurst Building, across the street from where Royal Farms Arena now sits. It’s suspected, historian Wayne Schaumburg tells a Fire Museum of Maryland-organized tour gathered at that location this afternoon, that a cigarette butt or cigar, discarded by a Saturday night reveler, fell by chance through a tiny broken glass opening in the sidewalk into the building’s basement.
First responders initially missed the smoldering in the cellar, however, and by the time they returned an hour later, the blaze had raced upward, soon exploding through the six-story building’s ceiling. Embers quickly began blowing “rooftop to rooftop,” Schaumburg notes. “Like a forest fire. It’s not the base of trees that catch and burn first, but the highest branches. Seven buildings were suddenly on fire in the next 10 to 15 minutes.”
By the next morning, The Sun, with its offices in the path of the blaze, hurried to Washington, D.C., to produce an extra edition and reported, “To all appearance, Baltimore’s business section is doomed.” Which it was. The Great Baltimore Fire would turn 140 acres of the downtown district to ash, including 1,526 buildings.
“The fire missed City Hall by the width of Fayette Street as it headed east, turning south at St. Paul Street because of a quirky shift of the wind,” Schaumburg says, retracing the fire’s route by foot. Essentially, everything north of Fayette Street survived; everything south of Fayette burned—other than a handful of structures, including the Alex. Brown & Sons Company Building on East Baltimore Street. That iconic building’s domed, stained-glass ceiling, which attracts visitors to this day, didn’t catch because of its small stature—flames literally flew over the top of its roof.
“The heat was an estimated 2,000 degrees at this corner and it cracked the brownstone facade around the Brown building steps,” Schaumburg says, pointing. “That’s the only remaining visible damage from the fire.”
On a positive note, Thomas O’Neill, owner of the once giant O’Neill & Co. department store on Charles Street and a devout, Irish immigrant, bequeathed $7 million to the Archdiocese of Baltimore after his business was spared by the same shift of wind that saved City Hall. O’Neill’s generosity helped build the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen and Good Samaritan Hospital.
“He believed a miracle, the work of God, saved his store,” Schaumburg explains.
“Which also means, I guess,” chimes in a tourgoer, “that there weren’t any devout Catholics south of Fayette Street.”
Of Muskrats and Men
North Paca Street
January 21, 2017
“It looks pretty much like it did in 1988 when it closed,” says Stacey Pack, leading a tour through Tubbs, the once popular but now long abandoned nightclub beneath Lexington Market, as visitors snap pictures of cocktail tables and faded red faux-leather booths. The bar itself is actually just a stopping point on the way to the deeper catacombs here, which are believed to date back to the early 1800s and were rediscovered in 1951. “What was it like?” muses La Verne Gray, a former state planner along for the tour this morning and someone who danced and partied at Tubbs back in the day. “All I remember is they had good food. I was young, drunk, and foolish then.”
The origins of the massive stone vaults farther below Tubbs remain even more mysterious. It’s believed they were used for cold storage before refrigeration. There are also unconfirmed reports that they housed distilleries during Prohibition. Either way, the action today is upstairs, where the market dubbed “the gastronomic capital of the world” by Ralph Waldo Emerson is beginning to percolate. The nuts at Konstant’s, founded in 1896, are roasting in an original iron roaster, and oysters at Faidley Seafood, founded a decade earlier, are being shucked.
Also for sale at Faidley are skinned muskrat and raccoon, although they’re out of raccoon at the moment and taking names for the waiting list. Muskrat and raccoon, longtime employee Lou Fleming explains, remain dinner-table favorites for older West Baltimoreans with rural roots.
“Oh, raccoon is good with cayenne pepper and yams. Sweet and hot,” says Fleming, a Dundalk native. “Tastes like wild rabbit.”
Portrait in Courage
East Pratt Street
February 4, 2017
“Frederick Douglass was the most photographed American figure in the 19th century,” Harvard professor John Stauffer tells the audience in the packed auditorium at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. “It wasn’t Lincoln, Grant, or even Walt Whitman. It was a black man. Douglass understood how photography could be used to shape public opinion—not unlike the way the Black Lives Matter movement has utilized cellphone videos.”
Born into slavery in Talbot County, Douglass learned to read in Baltimore as a child and worked as a ship’s caulker only a few blocks from the museum. He later returned to Fells Point after the Civil War to build a block of rowhouses on nearby Dallas Street.
Part of the museum’s Black History Month series of events, Stauffer’s presentation, based on his book, Picturing Frederick Douglass, is almost as much about the early, silver-nitrate photographic technology as it is about Douglass. The exposure times required long sits for portraits, during which, Stauffer says, the abolitionist actively participated in the artistry of his photographs, perfecting the image of “majestic wrath” that he wanted to project, hoping to stir viewers from their moral slumber.
Pointing to Douglass’ significance as a historical figure—but also to how ill-informed many people are about him—Stauffer notes that Douglass has been in the headlines again recently with President Donald Trump’s remarks that seemed to imply Douglass is alive. One compelling photo in the presentation is of Douglass during President Lincoln’s overflowing second inauguration (with John Wilkes Booth also in attendance) at the Capitol.
“The next time Trump claims the crowd at his inauguration was as big as the crowd at President Obama’s inauguration, please post that photo,” a museum visitor suggests during the Q&A. “Remind him Lincoln drew a bigger crowd than he did, too.”