Md. Club sets sights on spring

THE BALTIMORE SUN

By next spring, the historic Maryland Club -- charred in a six-alarm fire late Saturday -- should be restored to its original splendor, President Richard C. Riggs Jr. said yesterday.

The landmark granite building at Charles and Eager streets was fully insured and will be completely restored, Mr. Riggs said after an emergency meeting of the club's nine-member executive committee, which voted unanimously to repair the damage. The process began yesterday as dehumidifiers were placed throughout the building to dry it from the water used to battle the fire.

In the meantime, the private club, famous for its clear broth terrapin soup at lunch and dinner, may reopen early next year with a temporary kitchen and offer social events under large tents for its 1,000 members this fall, Mr. Riggs said. Four squash courts demolished in the blaze will be rebuilt as two larger, international-size courts.

Many members walked through the club yesterday to witness the estimated $4 million in damage to the 104-year-old building.

"It's an enormously historic building that means a great deal to all of us," said Mr. Riggs, who returned from his vacation home in Beaver Creek, Colo., to see the damage. "It's the anchor of that part of the city."

The club, organized in 1857, moved onto the site Dec. 31, 1891. An article in The Sun from the 1920s described its purpose as to promote "regulated social relations among its members and the extension of courtesies to strangers." Tipping the staff was considered improper, members were to avoid using harsh words, whistling and singing were prohibited and "children must be kept out -- also dogs," the article said.

Today, the all-male club has loosened up a bit. Women still are not allowed to join, but as of last week, members' wives are allowed to go to the club unescorted for lunch and dinner. The first African-American member -- attorney George Russell -- was admitted in 1988.

Although damage was heaviest on the east side of the club, where the fire is believed to have originated, many antiques and portraits of past presidents were salvaged from the mahogany-lined hallways by firefighters.

Member Charles Reeves was asleep when he heard of the fire in a midnight phone call from a former member.

He rushed to the scene from his Guilford home and instructed a firefighter to retrieve one of the club's most treasured paintings -- a portrait of its first president Jerome Bonaparte, a relative of Napoleon Bonaparte.

"I said, 'I hate to bother you with trivia, but we have this old portrait and we'd like to save it,' " Mr. Reeves said yesterday. He told the firefighter to enter the burning building, turn left and look for the portrait that resembled the emperor. Minutes later, the painting was rescued, with minimal damage.

William B. Guy Jr., a member for almost 40 years, said he has witnessed the Maryland Club evolve from a dinner and card club to its current status as a semiathletic club with squash as the game of choice.

"I was scared to death over the weekend," Mr. Guy said. "While it's bad, it is not as bad as we thought it would be. We will repair the damage and probably make it better than it was. We will have some social events in tents this fall and we are planning a gala in October to celebrate having a good time. We're not sunk down to the depths of despair."

Member L. G. "Bill" Shreve said he was shocked by the blaze, but was in a more positive mood yesterday when plans were set to rebuild the club.

"I thought it was a disaster when I heard of the fire. It took a big chunk out of my life," he said. "But it won't stay burned. The progress made in getting things back together in one day has been phenomenal."

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