The Darkroom

The Alex. Brown & Sons building, survivor of the Great Baltimore fire, still stands 114 years later

Amy Davis
The Baltimore Sun

Sometimes it pays to be short, even for a building.

The 1901 Alex. Brown & Sons building at 135 East Baltimore Street was at the center of the conflagration that erupted in downtown Baltimore on February 7, 1904. Despite temperatures estimated to be 2,500 degrees at the southwest corner of Baltimore and Calvert streets, the two-story structure survived unscathed, except for a few cracks in its stonework, caused by the intense heat. As winds spread, the flames moved eastward across the rooftops from Liberty Street to the Jones Falls, the updraft from adjacent buildings lifted the flames above the squat building.

The disaster began in the basement of the John E. Hurst building on Redwood Street, then called German Street, near Hopkins Place. The fire’s cause is uncertain, but it is likely that a discarded lit cigarette ignited a fire in the basement of the Hurst dry goods business. Thirty hours later, the Great Fire of 1904 had devastated more than 140 acres and destroyed more than 1,500 buildings and 2,500 businesses.

Yet Alex. Brown & Sons, the country’s oldest investment bank, suffered the least damage of any building within the burnt district. The Baltimore firm, founded in 1800, was purchased by Bankers Trust in 1997, and then absorbed into Deutsche Bank in 1999.

Now the genteel Beaux-Arts building, on the National Register of Historic Landmarks, will be transformed into the Alex Brown Restaurant later this year. No word on whether duck flambé or blackened redfish will be on the menu.

A program commemorating the Great Fire, with local historian Wayne Schaumburg and curator Steve Heaver, will be held at the Fire Museum of Maryland in Lutherville on February 11 from 1 to 4 p.m. Schaumburg also will lead a walking tour on Feb. 25, starting at the Old Otterbein Methodist Church at noon.

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