One of Baltimore's most famous drinking establishments sat in a shimmering pool Monday afternoon, a red condemnation sign propped on the front window above a smiling jack-o-lantern.
Across the street the owners and staff of Mount Washington Tavern stood staring at the shell, an informal receiving line for a steady stream of stunned patrons and neighbors who came to pay their respects.
"We'll be back. We'll be back," tavern owner Rob Frisch promised each person.
A two-alarm fire in the early morning hours changed the routine of hundreds of Baltimore area residents — teachers, firefighters, nurses, officer workers — whose after-work plans often included a stop at the Newbury Street restaurant and bar.
"I feel like I'm homeless," said Gwen Harmon, an x-ray technician at Sinai Hospital and 13-year customer who arrived in her blue scrubs and wrapped Frisch in a hug.
Not only was the tavern a magnet for locals, it was also an attraction for Preakness jockeys, trainers and horse owners — as well as for legions of lacrosse players. "I think anyone who's played the game in this area has at some point frequented the Mount Washington Tavern," said Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala.
And it anchored Mount Washington's small community of shops and restaurants, leaving some to wonder about the fire's broader impact.
"We're all in shock," said Blake Wollman, owner of the Desert Cafe on Sulgrave Avenue. "This is the flagship of the village. This will definitely hurt business."
More than 500 people left comments or "likes" on the tavern's Facebook page. "First place I took out-of-town friends when they moved here — big piece of Baltimore, a big piece of the personal history for a lot of people," was a comment that summed up the feelings of many writers.
Michael and Teresa Sweeney of Owings Mills could relate to that. The couple had their wedding reception at the tavern three years ago on Nov. 1 and planned on returning for their anniversary dinner. Instead, they stood on the curb and shook their heads.
"My sister emailed me with the news, and we had to come over. Now, we're looking for a Plan B," Teresa said. "When they reopen, we'll be here opening night."
The fire was reported about 4:30 a.m. and went to a second alarm at 5:08 a.m. Thick smoke was visible for miles along the Jones Falls Expressway, and the fire closed several streets in Mount Washington for most of the day.
Frisch, a tavern employee for 26 years, the last four as an owner, called the damage, "a total loss. We may be able to save some things in the front bar and the main bar, but the rest of it is pretty much gone."
About 65 firefighters, including one unit from Baltimore County, worked to contain the fire in the densely developed village, said Chief Kevin Cartwright, Baltimore City fire department spokesman. The fire was brought under control shortly before 9:30 a.m. Only then were conditions considered safe enough for firefighters to enter the two-story, shingled building to extinguish hot spots, he said.
At 3:30, smoke was still rising from the rear of the building as a rubber membrane between the glassed-in Sky Bar and first floor smoldered. Fire investigators were waiting for the all-clear sign to begin their work.
Frisch said all was well when he locked up about 2 a.m. Three hours later, he got a call at his home in Upperco about the fire. Word spread quickly among the 70 bartenders and wait staff, many of whom joined Frisch and co-owner Dave Lichty at the scene.
While the rear of the building was a tapestry of broken glass and blackened beams, the entrance looked as though it might be ready for happy hour later in the week. The massive oval window with gold and green lettering was intact, and a Maryland flag waved from its pole. Not a single leaf of a tree inches from the building was singed.
"If you look in the front window, it almost looked like you could open on time," said manager Michael Dowgiewicz.
The tavern started its life as Sparwasser's, a basic bar with a pool table in the village that relocated to Newbury Street in the 1940s. The Mount Washington Tavern opened in 1979. A mural depicted the Pimlico clubhouse, etched windows separated the front bar and raw bar, and chandeliers from the 1880s hung overhead.