Baltimore’s Lexington Market is undergoing a transformation as a new pavilion rises along Eutaw Street. The market has changed several times, but none was as rapid and dramatic as the one that leveled it in the early morning hours of March 25, 1949.
It was a Friday morning and market merchants had their stalls filled with spring foods in anticipation of a busy Saturday sales day.
The Baltimore Sun reported, “Firemen attributed the outbreak to an electrical flash from an undetermined source that was reported shortly after 3:30 a.m. in a poultry stall near Paca Street. It was reported by two employees of the American Ice Company … who were icing a produce stall in the center of the block.”
“When we turned around to see what it was, the flames started shooting up all around, right up to the roof,” said the ice company employees, Charles Greene and William Bayne.
They ran to a nearby fire house at Paca and Fayette streets and reported the blaze.
When firefighters arrived, they found a roaring inferno and immediately trained high pressure hoses on either side of the old wooden market building.
Firefighters also called for evacuations of nearby residents and of patients at the Volunteers of America, a charity hospital on Paca Street.
The Baltimore Fire Department’s history, the “Unheralded Heroes,” said that by 3:51 a.m., the fire had gone to five alarms.
“The dry, tinder frame market house contained 168 stalls … painted over with countless coats of paint. It made a gigantic bonfire, burning to the ground … brick buildings facing the holocaust were blistered,” said the departmental history.
The Sun produced a special edition of its morning paper. Joseph Bertram Droll Jr., a newly hired printer, who worked the 11:20 p.m. to 7 a.m. slot, known as the lobster shift, recalled in a memoir of that morning’s events.
Droll said that morning he sent the Second City [edition] to press at 2:15 a.m. He later got a call from Charles H. “Buck” Dorsey, managing editor of The Sun, who told him a multi-alarm fire was destroying Lexington Market.
“There would be a tear-up on page one and he instructed me exactly which pages he wanted held,” Droll recalled. “Little did he know, or care, that there was only a small crew on duty: one make-up man (myself), and one Linotype operator and one floor boy in the news department. The rest of the crew had left for the night.”
Droll said he had to employ extra help from the folks in the ad-room to handle the inside pages while he quickly tended to page one. The final edition was closed at 5:30 a.m. The headline read in big, bold capital letters, “FIRE AT LEXINGTON MARKET WIPES OUT ENTIRE SECTION.”
“Mr. Dorsey thanked us for a job well done. His parting shot was that he was going upstairs to get a ‘good slug’ from a bottle that he kept in the bottom drawer of his desk — used for just such occasions,” Droll wrote.
After the fire, market merchants gathered at what is now St. Jude’s Shrine in its church hall and demanded that the city “put a roof over our heads.” G.W. Shafer and Charles Ortman represented the meat dealers, Nicholas Konstant the candy stalls, Frank Serio the fruit dealers, Frederick Goetz, the condiment dealers and Mary Mervis, the delicatessen dealers.
The city soon erected a temporary market, a Quonset hut, and began building the red brick structure that remains in use as the main market structure. The city added a parking garage and a west market that stretches to Greene Street for additional space.
Then Mayor Thomas J. D’Alesandro Jr. pressed for a rapid rebuilding, but the task took three years. The market reopened April 24, 1952. About 8,000 persons gathered at the corner of Lexington and Eutaw streets to see the new palace of victuals.
Lending a hand was longtime Little Italy resident and City Council member Joseph A. Bertorelli, who led a 15-piece marching band.
“Pausing only to snip the blue [and] white ribbon stretched across the building’s front door, his Honor [the mayor] followed the baton-swinging Bertorelli up the tumultuous central aisle amid cheers of ‘Hi, Tommy’ shouted above the din of The Washington Post March.”