Maryland Club rises from ashes Landmark building to reopen tomorrow


Almost one year after a seven-alarm fire nearly destroyed the Maryland Club, the Mount Vernon landmark will reopen tomorrow bearing few signs of damage.

Carpenters, plasterers and other artisans have been rushing for months to restore the 1891 building at Charles and Eager streets to its original appearance, working to finish before the busy fall social season.

"The place looks beautiful," said club president Richard C. Riggs Jr. "I think everybody will be enormously proud of the way it turned out.

"We were incredibly fortunate that no one was hurt," Riggs added. "We owe a lot to the city for helping us and especially to Ilex" Construction and Development, general contractor for the $8 million restoration.

The fire that nearly destroyed the private club began in a light fixture above the squash courts late Aug. 19, a Saturday.

No one was in the building at the time, and the fire raced through much of the east wing before firefighters brought it under control. Investigators determined it was an electrical accident, and the club was able to rebuild because it was fully insured.

Although rooms on the east side of the four-level building received the most damage, practically every room sustained some degree of damage from smoke and water. Exterior walls remained intact, although some sections were charred.

"After the fire, there were three inches of water on the floor, and a cascading waterfall down the central stairway," Riggs said.

As part of the restoration, the building had to be cleared and dried out, then reconstructed. Furniture was reupholstered. Paintings were restored. Windows were releaded. Even the moose head above the front hall fireplace had to be cleaned.

Detail work

Walter Schamu, a club member and head of SMDA Architects, was the architect for the restoration. His attention to detail, along with the contractor's restoration skills, were critical to preserving the building's 19th-century ambience, Riggs said.

Plasterers from Hayles and Howe replicated intricate ceiling moldings, and glass restorers from Artisan Glass Works re-created lead glass windows. Portions of the roof were repaired. Floors were sanded to eliminate the cupping of boards soaked with water. Wood panels were stripped and refinished.

One of the most difficult jobs involved the fabrication of a 13-foot by 15-foot stained glass skylight for the ceiling of the first floor cafe. Featuring the same motif as the fire-damaged original, with a black-eyed Susan in the center, it will be installed later this summer.

Improvements added

Contractors also completed some changes that will help improve the building. A new entrance was created from the club's Charles Street parking lot, complete with a ramp for people in wheelchairs. A new dumbwaiter and sprinkler system were installed.

Eighty percent of the furniture was saved, and new carpets and other finishes were selected by the interior design team of Henry Johnson and Robert Berman. Their objective was to make the club look like "a house that has been lived in over a long period of time," rather than a setting that came together all at once, said general manager Katherine Mandaro.

Many of the club's paintings and photographs, such as a series of maritime photos by A. Aubrey Bodine, have been returned to their original locations, she added. Also back is one of the club's most cherished possessions -- a portrait of its first president Jerome Bonaparte, a relative of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The all-male club was founded in 1857 as a social oasis for Baltimore's gentry -- a private setting near downtown to have lunch and play cards or billiards. Its first location was the northeast corner of Cathedral and Franklin streets, where a hotel now stands.

A 1920s article in The Sun said its purpose was 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.

The Charles Street building was designed for the club by Baldwin and Pennington, a noted Baltimore firm, and opened on Dec. 31, 1891.

Marble and wood

Considered a prime example of the Richardson Romanesque style of architecture, named after 19th-century architect H. H. Richardson, it has an exterior clad in Beaver Dam marble, and interior surfaces finished in mahogany, Tennessee marble and quartered oak. An automobile court, cafe and outdoor terrace were built in 1903, and squash courts were added beginning in 1927.

Today, the all-male club has more than 700 members, although Riggs declined to provide an exact number. Women still can't join, but female guests have been permitted since 1963, and members' wives may go to the club unescorted for lunch and dinner. The first African-American member -- attorney George Russell -- was admitted in 1988. Many of the younger members join for the squash courts, some of the area's finest.

The athletic facilities reopened in June. Among the areas opening tomorrow are the first floor dining room and reading room and parts of the second and third floors.

Construction continues

Still under construction is the second floor dining room and most of the east wing, including the cafe with the stained glass skylight and an upper-level porch. They will be ready for use in several more weeks.

Riggs said the club was lucky that the fire started where it did because it was a location that fire fighters could tackle from three directions. Had it begun more in the center of the original building, he said, it would have been much harder to extinguish.

It's a coincidence that the club is reopening so close to the anniversary of the fire, Mandaro said.

"There was some thought of waiting for the anniversary," she said. "But we decided to open on the 12th, since we could do it." Dinner service will resume Wednesday, and a grand reopening ceremony will be held in late September, she said.

Because of the fire department's efforts, Riggs said, there was never any question of the club abandoning the Charles Street location.

"If it had all burned, we might have gone somewhere else," Riggs said. "But we saw there was a lot left. It's a wonderful building and a wonderful location, and we support the city. You can't get another building like this."

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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