Historic Annapolis got back to business yesterday, with shop owners reporting a resumption of brisk holiday sales as investigators continued to probe the cause of a five-alarm fire that swept through three downtown buildings and caused several million dollars in damage.
The Friday night blaze had closed down much of Main Street and left some businesses without power during the start of the busiest retail period of the year. But two days later, shoppers strolled the street leading down to the waterfront, which was reopened to one lane of traffic.
"We're in the middle of the Christmas season, and we want everyone to know that Main Street is open," City Administrator Robert D. Agee said. "The best thing people can do to help is to come back and buy."
The three buildings damaged in the fire date to the late 19th century. Although two were declared salvageable, one was so badly gutted that city officials condemned it. A demolition team spent much of yesterday carefully removing portions of its facade to ensure that it would not collapse.
Employees of the building's tenant, Zachary's Jewelers, saved most -- but not all -- of store's high-end merchandise on the night of the fire. The next day, an Annapolis firefighter discovered a $50,000 diamond necklace in the rubble and returned it to the store's owner, city spokeswoman Jan Hardesty said.
Building owner Harvey Blonder said he is working with city officials to relocate the displaced businesses, which also include the Candy Factory and Main Street Ice Cream. Meanwhile, city officials met yesterday with Blonder and a design team, vowing to move quickly to rebuild the damaged structures.
In 1997, after another fire during the holiday shopping season destroyed two centuries-old buildings in the historic district, plans to rebuild languished amid a lengthy historic-preservation and land-use debate. Agee said that to prevent that from recurring, the city is assembling a team to address problems as they crop up and to quickly approve the new design and the necessary permits.
"We certainly don't want a repeat of what took place the last time," he said. "This time, all the players will be at the same table."
City officials suspect that Friday's fire was started by an electrical problem. Annapolis Fire Department spokesman Capt. Joseph F. Martin said that although investigators believe the fire was an accident, they have yet to determine its cause. Because of the size of the blaze, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the state fire marshal are assisting in the investigation.
The downtown area, just steps from the State House, is popular for its shopping, dining and nightlife offerings. The fire did little to squelch that enthusiasm, according to owners or managers at several stores, and might have attracted new customers.
Heather Sanderson, assistant manager of White House | Black Market, a clothing store, said yesterday's demolition attracted a number of people who ventured into the store and might not have otherwise come downtown.
"Curiosity is bringing people in," she said. "The guys are watching while the females are coming into our store to shop."
La Belle Cezanne, another jewelry store, lost electricity for most of Saturday. But owner Mayk Baghdadlian said business yesterday was strong.
"There's plenty of people stopping in, coming down for brunch," he said.
"It's like any other normal day, except there's a bunch of cameras out front."