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2nd disaster hits Brown's Arcade


Beverly Matthai stood yesterday outside Femme, her chic boutique in Brown's Arcade on North Charles Street, and sobbed as a team of insurance adjusters scrutinized racks of smoke- and water-damaged silk blouses, jewelry and cocktail dresses.

She said she had been sleepless three days -- ever since Christmas morning, when a fire swept through the historic downtown Baltimore mini-mall. Much of her $50,000 stock of women's clothing was damaged.

"It's the second time this has happened to me in five years," Ms. Matthai said. A freak underground blast from a steam pipe in 1988 destroyed much of her inventory and forced her to close Femme for nearly three months.

"I'm feeling kind of numb," she said yesterday. "I just wonder, what are the chances of this happening again? It's kind of disheartening and I just feel like I have dumb luck."

The boutique will hold a fire sale Wednesday and reopen once again in late January, she said.

Fire Lt. Earl R. DeVincent said Saturday's smoky two-alarm blaze started before 6 a.m. in a utility closet of Nyammins Karibe Kafe, the restaurant at 322 N. Charles St. that specializes in spicy Caribbean food. Damage to the restaurant was estimated at $150,000.

Arson investigators consider the cause "suspicious," Lieutenant DeVincent said.

Most of the seven businesses in the four-story arcade, a %J preserved turn-of-the-century commercial complex that anchors the block of Cathedral Hill shops, were open yesterday as workers repaired ceilings, walls, windows and glass doors broken by firefighters.

Waiters at David's Courtyard Cafe were serving coffee and muffins. Many of the 35 employees of the Campbell Group

Advertising Agency were busy in offices on the second and third floors.

"It's a bit drafty in here -- windows are boarded up," said Bob Campbell, president and owner of the advertising agency, who said the firm's pool table was the biggest loss.

"We were affected, there is an ugly smell around here, but we were very fortunate. We lock a backup computer disc in a fireproof safe each night, so -- bingo! -- we were up and running the next morning. The firefighters did an excellent job."

Nancy Bridge and her mother Nancy Karlson, owners of the Tucara makeup studio in the arcade, said there was some smoke and water damage to their inventory in the basement, so they closed the studio for two days to clean up.

"We will lose about $3,000," Ms. Karlson estimated.

Ms. Bridge said that on Christmas morning, she and other Brown's Arcade business owners stood watching on Charles Street as firefighters fought the blaze. They hugged each other and cried because they were uncertain about the extent of the damage.

Once they learned that not all of Brown's Arcade was gone, owners banded together to support those others whose businesses were wrecked, she said.

"There is a mixture of emotions -- we are filled with sadness and elation at the same time. Even though we were not damaged, it is hard to be happy when I look around and see what could have been," she said.

Ms. Bridge and Ms. Matthai said other Charles Street merchants, family members and their friends have offered help and encouragement this week.

"Every day I come home and find something new on my doorstep," Ms. Matthai said. "There have been flowers, home-made cookies, champagne."

John Mauro, manager of McGinns Irish Pub and Restaurant, said customers are stopping by to show concern. One of the pub's doors was broken down by firefighters but it has been replaced. In the 1988 steam blast, he said, the pub lost 76 tapes of its beloved Irish music.

"We will be totally back in business shortly," Mr. Mauro said. "People are stopping by saying this was a terrible thing that happened, especially at Christmas time."

Richard Coles, assistant development director of Enterprise .

Development Co., co-owner of Brown's Arcade with Struever Brothers, Eccles and Rouse, said the complex would be completely restored.

L "Several businesses are opening as we talk," he said Monday.

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