Renewal after Main Street fire; Transformation: A renovated building in Ellicott City reopens today, offering a sign of new life after last week's devastating blaze.


CHARLES ALEXANDER and Laurie McLain were less than a block away when a six-alarm fire broke out last week in Ellicott City.

Architects by profession, they have spent the past two years restoring the old Masons Lodge on Main Street to serve as the new home for the design companies they head, Alexander Design Studio and McLain Associates.

They had just mailed invitations to hundreds of clients, friends, colleagues and public officials to celebrate the grand opening of their building. Hearing the firetrucks and smelling the smoke, they hoped the fire wouldn't spread in its direction.

"It was close," McLain said this week. "We could see the flames from our window."

Alexander, who purchased the stone building in 1997 and invested $200,000 to restore it, acknowledges he was worried at first. "As a building owner, your biggest fear is the time and energy you've invested in your building, only to see it go up in smoke."

The fire destroyed five businesses and four apartments across the street, causing $2 million in damage. But firefighters got it under control before it reached the old Masons Lodge, at 8212 Main St.

While others are coping with their losses, Alexander and McLain are holding an open house at their new offices at 4 p.m. today. It's a welcome sign of renewal on Main Street, so soon after the fire Nov. 9.

Alexander said he sympathizes with the owners who suffered property damage and is relieved that his building wasn't harmed.

He's also philosophical about the fire and what it means for Ellicott City, where he lives and works.

"This town really is about constant rebirth," he said. "The flood [caused by Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972] was the biggest catalyst for Ellicott City, in terms of renovation. That's what happened after the 1984 fire, too. It's constantly reinventing itself."

The stone building that reopens today was constructed in 1900 near Main and Church streets. The Masons Lodge occupied the upper two floors, and a grocery store was on the lowest level.

Occupying the former lodge space, the architects' office and studio were designed as a box within a box, with new walls defining interior spaces while allowing the perception of the original walls and pressed tin ceiling. The lower level has private offices and work spaces, and the upper level is a large open studio.

Although Alexander and McLain have separate companies, they frequently work together on projects and share the same work space. Because they and their employees do much of their work on computers, their studio looks nothing like the stereotypical office where drafters hunch over slanted drawing boards, T-squares in hand. In many respects, it's a paperless office. The layout was designed so computers can rest on carts that can be moved around the studio. A pool table sits in the middle of the room, for employees to use during breaks.

Tonka Construction Co. of Baltimore was the general contractor for the renovation, which won a 1998 design award from the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Alexander said the designers wanted to explore "the integration of computer technology into the traditional atelier." They also wanted a work setting that would be comfortable for employees and clients.

"We've tried to create an environment where ideas are driving the process, not dollars," he said. "We want people to enjoy working with us. That's what it's all about."

The architects' clients include Beth El Congregation in Baltimore County; Keystone Financial in Harrisburg, Pa.; Messiah College in Grantham, Pa.; and the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pa. Alexander said he and McLain also wanted to show off what they can do in architectural restoration and workplace design.

"If we can't do it for ourselves," Alexander said, "how can we convince others to hire us to do it?"

Although he's one of the few architects based in Ellicott City, Alexander said he doesn't know if he'll be involved in rebuilding the charred areas.

"I'm not much of an ambulance chaser," he said. "I hate taking advantage of other people's misfortune."

He notes an element of risk in living or working in old buildings that are so close to each other, as they are in Ellicott City.

"The whole reason we're here is because we love old buildings," he said. But "what makes it charming is also what makes it risky."

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