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Fire damages historic buildings in Baltimore's red-light district

The call echoed across Blue Mirrors just after 3:30 in the afternoon: "Smoke!"

Within seconds, dark clouds choked the bar on The Block, the city's storied red-light district in the heart of downtown. Young women clad in slivers of lingerie grabbed coats and dashed outside, as the first firefighters streamed water onto the blaze that would grow to engulf four buildings on East Baltimore Street.

"We were trying to get the girls out as soon as possible without getting any indecent exposure charges," said Jeff Jones, the owner of Blue Mirrors. "By the time I got to the top of the steps, I couldn't see the tip of my nose because of the smoke."

The five-alarm blaze, which firefighters believe began in the four-story building that houses Blue Mirrors and other adult businesses, caused extensive damage to four buildings and swept close to towering city office buildings — including the Fire Department's headquarters — prompting the evacuation of about 2,000.

More than 150 firefighters battled the flames near the intersection of East Baltimore and Holliday streets, smashing windows in century-old show bars and shooting columns of water through the narrow alley that separated the burning buildings from city offices.

Despite the magnitude of the blaze — fire officials said it was the largest downtown fire in at least a decade — no injuries were reported. No damage estimates were immediately available, and the cause remained under investigation.

Among the businesses that appeared to have been damaged were the Lust nightclub, the Gayety Show World bookstore, the Plaza Saloon and Crazy John's sub shop, a popular lunch spot for city workers.

As the blaze tore through the structures, swells of black smoke churned across the downtown skyline, darkening The Block as if it were dusk.

Workers, herded onto a field in front of City Hall, gaped at the sky with their hands over their mouths and snapped photos with cell phone cameras.

In the MECU building adjacent to the burning structure, firefighters stood in the windows of the high-rise that serves as the department's headquarters, poised to battle the blaze if it leapt across the alley. The MECU building suffered broken windows and smoke and water damage.

Lois Garey, a city zoning board employee and a former Baltimore City councilwoman, said she could smell smoke from her office on the top floor of the city-owned Charles L. Benton Jr. Building.

The 64-year-old Garey, who walks with a cane because of a back problem, walked down 14 flights of stairs because the elevators were disabled due to the threat of fire.

"I'd do two and a half flights, and then sit down and rest for a minute, and do it again," said Garey.

Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said he spotted the dark smoke through a window in his office on the 13th floor of the Benton building moments before the smoke alarms began to clang.

The smoke infiltrated the ventilation system in the office building and he was shepherding workers out, he said.

Councilman William H. Cole IV said he hurried to a window in the council's formal chambers in City Hall when he heard about the fire and spotted flames licking buildings.

"The Fire Department's response has been incredibly impressive," said Cole, whose district includes the downtown area. "You don't realize until you see something like this what goes into fighting a fire of this size."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake also praised firefighters and said that crews would continue to inspect the charred buildings and survey damage to city offices.

"We'll be here all night," she said.

City workers who had not been able to grab keys or other essentials when they were evacuated received temporary shelter at the nearby War Memorial Plaza building, she said.

The city buildings will be open Tuesday and employees are instructed to enter through the Fayette Street doors, according to Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake.

Fire Department spokesman Chief Kevin Cartwright said arson investigators were inspecting the site, which is typical after a large fire.

The fire appeared to have begun in a brick building on the north side of The Block. Stoked by stiff winds, the flames rapidly spread to three adjacent structures.

"The wind always plays a role in the intensity of the fire," Cartwright said.

Firefighters shattered glass windows in a long-vacant building on the corner of The Block and climbed in to battle the blaze. Moments later, the roof erupted in flames, sending the firefighters scrambling out.

One firefighter who had been inside described seeing flames shoot through rooms.

One of the charred buildings is marked with cornerstones from 1797 and 1904, signifying it was one of the structures demolished by the Great Baltimore fire.

The fire of 1904 cleared out the block, which had featured business offices and clothing stories. From the rubble came a movie house complex, opened by Philadelphia film producer Sidney Lubin, on the north side of the 400 block of E. Baltimore St. and adjoining buildings.

Called "Lubin's," it advertised "Life Motion Pictures" and vaudeville acts on separate floors, with an admission price of five cents. The theater was purchased and renovated by the People's Theater Co., launching under the new name "Plaza," according to "Exit: A History of Movies in Baltimore."

During a fire in 1935, hundreds of patrons refused to leave after a blaze broke out in the projection room, according to an article in The Sun. The theater would years later switch to adult films.

In the late 1960s, a blaze broke out across the street in the backstage area of the Gayety Theater, at the time the city's oldest live burlesque house. Its name and shows would move into the Plaza, taking on the name Gayety Show World.

The modern Gayety Show World has been a video store with private viewing booths. Its motto: "Your pleasure is our business." Also included in the building are two adult clubs, the Plaza and the recently-opened Blue Mirrors club.

The Gayety building's current ownership was not immediately determinable. It is owned by 404 LLC, whose listed registered agent is an attorney who died in 2006.

On Custom House Avenue, about a half-block from the fire, five or six men continued to nurse their drinks at the bar of Norma Jean's gentleman's club as firefighters continued their task. Two dancers continued conversations with patrons despite the continuous bleats of smoke detectors. The manager, who identified herself as only Heather, said, "It hasn't affected us except for the alarms. We're keeping the doors closed because of the smoke."

Peter Ireland, who owns Norma Jean's club, said it was sad to see longtime owners facing the prospect of losing their businesses.

"Some of those building's are over 100 years old, and you're going to have problems," he said, predicting that city officials would "wind up tearing them down, buying them out and condemning them.

"They might condemn the whole block," he said. "You don't know what's going to happen."

A dancer and bartender at the Plaza said she worried that the fire could threaten The Block's existence.

The smoking ban, rigidly-enforced nighttime parking restrictions and more aggressive policing of The Block have made it harder to attract customers, said Alexis, who declined to divulge her last name because her family did not approve of her line of work.

Alexis huddled in an SUV with Jones, the owner of Blue Mirrors, and several other employees of the burned businesses, watching firefighters extinguish the last embers.

She had been tending bar when the fire broke out and tossed her coat to a dancer to cover herself when she ran outside, she said. She left her wardrobe of costumes — worth about $2,000, she said — in the burning bar.

Alexis spoke of the camaraderie among dancers and patrons on The Block and the area's historical significance. She had recently learned her grandmother had also danced on The Block with one of the red-light district's best known performers — Blaze Starr.

Jones, who opened Blue Mirrors just last month, struck a more hopeful note.

"The Block, for all its faults, is a landmark, an icon," he said. "I don't see any way we are not going to come back."

Reporters Justin Fenton, Nick Madigan, Frank D. Roylance and researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this report.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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