Tour probes memories of Great Baltimore Fire Downtown walk led by student of local history


Don't listen for verbal pyrotechnics in Fred Shoken's Great Baltimore Fire walking tour.

What you get is a well reasoned, fact-studded pilgrimage into urban history led by one the city's most learned students.

The 39-year-old Mr. Shoken, who works for the parking division of the city's Department of Public Works, explains the events of Feb. 7-8, 1904, when a devastating blaze leveled commercial Baltimore.

"And so much has changed in the last 90 years, you can't even see Jones Falls that well," he said one day this week as he previewed what he'll be giving this Saturday afternoon. The tour is free but takes about two hours and a pair of comfortable walking shoes.

At the corner of Charles and Baltimore, he gestures toward the former headquarters of the once-mighty Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the classical temple of the old Savings Bank of Baltimore.

At this point the architectural historian in Mr. Shoken emerges.

"Look at these buildings -- the B&O; and the Savings Bank. They couldn't be more different but each was designed by the same architect," said the former staff member of the Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation.

Mr. Shoken grew up in Cheswolde, graduated from Northwestern Senior High School, University of Maryland and earned a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University in urban planning. He is a past president of Baltimore Heritage, the preservation advocacy group.

At the NationsBank Building (built in 1929 as the Baltimore Trust Co.) his eagle eye turns to a stone medallion on the Baltimore Street entrance.

Mr. Shoken points to a classical figure (could it be the god of fire, Hephaestus?) a carver placed on the bank's northern wall. The sculptural circle depicts the god, a bank and a fire. Thanks to this expert's translation, we learn this is a stone reference to the International Trust Co., which the fire actually spared.

This becomes an occasion to discuss which buildings survived the fire and which became charred rubble.

Mr. Shoken grows in enthusiasm as he walks across Redwood Street through the heart of Baltimore's old financial district.

He has your eyes looking in all directions, but mostly up. He directs you to the roof of a Redwood Street office building where the letters "SLICO" stand out in the cornice. "Think about it. That stands for Sun Life Insurance Company," he said.

At Water and Commerce streets we reach the Maury, Donnelly and Parr Insurance Co.

"Finally," he says, "here's a firm left from the days when the fire started."

He leads tours in an erudite manner, with the eye of an art historian and city planner. He is also something of a mourner for the pre-urban renewal Baltimore, when the city was composed of generally smaller buildings filled with small businesses and industry.

"The city has changed so much there aren't even any working firehouses left from the time of the fire. There is one firehouse left at Gay and Baltimore, but the firemen have all been consolidated into the super houses," he said.

One of the ironies of the Baltimore Fire is that there is no real monument to it, other than the blocks of commercial buildings that went up in 1905 and 1906.

"There is one stained-glass window in the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen," Mr. Shoken noted. And that is in honor of the cathedral donor, merchant Thomas O'Neill, who by legend prayed that his department store be saved from the flames. It was, and O'Neill left a fortune to construct the cathedral.

The two-hour, free tour begins Saturday at 1 p.m. outside the Baltimore Arena's Hopkins Place side. Assemble on Baltimore Street opposite the Gage clothing store.

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