A long-awaited $5.5 million renovation and expansion of the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis suffered a setback last night when fire and an explosion, possibly caused by a propane tank, damaged the work site in the city's historic district.
Alerted by an alarm company, firefighters responded to the building on Franklin Street near Church Circle about 9:30 p.m. and immediately noticed smoke coming from the work site adjacent to the museum, said Battalion Chief Michael Lonergan of the Annapolis Fire Department.
Soon after that, an explosion rocked the neighborhood, sending firefighters and other bystanders fleeing, he said.
Jason White, a kitchen manager at the nearby Rams Head Tavern who was watching from across Franklin Street, said the blast "almost knocked us over."
He said the explosion sent flames shooting into the air.
"Everyone started running," White said.
After an initial examination of the work site - which was empty except for construction materials - Fire Department officials reported that no historical items had been damaged.
The blaze was confined to the work site.
The main museum, which is housed in the former sanctuary of historic Mount Moriah Church, was apparently unharmed - barring smoke damage.
"There is a lot of relief right now," said James Johnson, president of the museum's foundation who arrived at the scene after the fire had been brought under control.
The cause of the fire is under investigation, Lonergan said. No one was injured.
State and city leaders kicked off the renovation and expansion of the Banneker-Douglass Museum - the first in the state devoted to African-American history - last year at this time. They were expecting the project to be completed by Labor Day.
The museum, which opened about 20 years ago, will grow to more than 20,000 square feet once the expansion is complete.
The museum operates under the Maryland Commission of African-American History and Culture and is administered by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. Its collection includes more than 6,000 historic objects and photographs.
Many of the museum items have been in storage off-site because of a lack of space, a museum official told The Sun last year.
The museum is in the heart of Annapolis' historic district and next to Anne Arundel County's Circuit Courthouse. No court buildings were damaged, fire officials said.