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Union Square tavern front wall collapses


A landmark tavern regarded as a symbol of revival in the Union Square neighborhood of Southwest Baltimore crumbled in a mass of cascading bricks and dust yesterday as the owners were renovating the building.

Built in the 1840s and currently known as Glen and Nan's Beer Garden and Cafe, it held a piece of baseball history -- part of a wooden bar once owned by the father of Babe Ruth, the owners said.

About two-thirds of the front brick wall of the three-story building at the corner of Little Hollins Street and Arlington Avenue collapsed in a heap shortly after 10 a.m. A gaping hole, from the roof to the street, exposed a vacant apartment on the second and third floors.

The only injury reported was to a neighborhood resident who had just left the cafe with a cup of coffee and was struck by falling bricks. He suffered a head wound that required stitches, a fire official said. About six people working inside at the time were not injured.

Hours after the accident, a city housing official at the scene told owners Glen Taylor and Nan Bosley that the building would have to be torn down, probably tomorrow.

"We're going to do anything we can to save all or part of the building, but it doesn't look very promising at this point," Zack Germroth, a spokesman for the city housing department, said last night.

He said it is possible that the structure collapsed on its own given its age, but officials are investigating the cause.

The incident caused a commotion in the neighborhood, where some questioned whether the owners had proper permits for the renovations, noting that none were posted outside the building.

JoAnne Whitely, who formerly owned the building and ran Gypsy's Cafe and Tom Thumb's Tavern, a restaurant and bar, complained that city officials ignored her repeated warnings in recent months that the work was threatening the structure.

Taylor and Bosley said they had the proper permits, which were kept inside the bar. They said they did not believe the work they were doing caused the wall to collapse. "We do have permits," Bosley said. "There are too many city people in and out of here not to have permits. Besides, we weren't doing anything on the outside anyway."

Taylor said he was installing drywall inside the bar when he heard a pop and a crack before the wall fronting Little Hollins Street fell over. He did not remove load-bearing interior walls, he said.

Larry Little, the city's chief of building construction who was at the scene yesterday, said the cause of the collapse would have to be investigated.

Germroth said footers for buildings more than 100 years old were often made of crushed clam shells or whatever other material could be found. As the buildings shift and settle, the mortar weakens and bricks come loose, he said.

Whitely, who bought the building in 1980 and lost it in a foreclosure two years ago, said she was sick about the damage.

Whitely wrote to Shawn S. Karimian, the city housing department's director of construction and buildings inspection, March 20 alleging that major renovation work was being done without proper review.

In an April 26 letter to Whitely, Karimian replied that all the work conducted to that point had been properly permitted.

Germroth said the housing department sent five inspectors to the site from last November until two weeks ago, in part prompted by Whitely's complaints, and found no problems.

Those who live in the neighborhood talked as if they had lost an old friend. The building appeared in the Barry Levinson movie, "Avalon."

Henry W. Karcher Sr., 58, recalled that Nellie Fitz bought the neighborhood tavern in 1941, the year Karcher was born, and ran it as Nellie's. He said the place was famous for its big, delicious crab cakes that cost 60 cents apiece.

JoAnn Zanella, 53, a lifelong neighborhood resident, said she felt sad for Taylor and Bosley. She said they have been working hard to improve the building and fulfill their dreams for the business.

Taylor said he doesn't know what he will do now. "This was my retirement," he said.

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