There is no security on this earth,

Equitable Building at far left
(Click to enlarge)
The Fire

On February 7-8, 1904 the 30-hour Great Baltimore Fire swept through most of downtown Baltimore, destroying 86 blocks and over 1,500 buildings—taking with it the facilities of thousands of businesses. The firm's offices at the time were Room Nos. 448-450, Equitable Building, at the southwest corner of Calvert and Fayette Streets. The first of Baltimore's "skyscrapers" at 9 stories (!), it was supposedly fireproof, and was considered one of the most desirable business addresses in the city. As the fire approached, the partners converged on the offices and took out everything they could carry by wagon. That's as far as company lore takes us.

Looking deeper reveals a closer scrape. Consider the following: The first fire alarm rang at 10:48 AM, 7 blocks from the office. Most would have not felt threatened for at least two or three hours after that because of the distance involved and because the Equitable Building was "fireproof." That pushes the action time to 1 or 2 PM. On a Sunday. And, although residential phone service was available in 1904, the Martenet partners did not have it (Sutton appears for the first time in the 1905 telephone directory). Tustin lived over a mile from the office, the other two lived over two miles away, and away from each other. So just meeting and deciding to act would have been challenging—and time consuming. The newspapers reported that many businessmen tried to save items from their workplaces; that would mean crowded stairwells for a firm carrying bulky records down from 4th floor offices. Since their residences were so distant, multiple trips were probably out of the question. And by 6 PM the building was ablaze; access inside was likely prohibited at least a half hour prior. That leaves a window of 3 to 4 hours to catch up with one another, decide to act, mobilize transportation and help, ride the one or two miles by wagon to the office, grab what they could and get out. We make some assumptions in that timetable, but given those conditions, it's a wonder anything was rescued.

Yet, saved were the field notebooks, the "papers" (now referred to as packets), the estate files, the field record books and, it is thought, the surveying instruments—in general, sufficient assets to reproduce what would likely be lost. Abandoned to their fate were all of the large rolled plats, maps, furniture, tools, etc. Although the facade of the Equitable Building (at the far left of the picture above) survived the fire (and indeed survives today), the interior was destroyed, and with it the material unable to be carried out.

...there is only opportunity. --General Douglas MacArthur

Vista of Decimation
(Click to enlarge)
For the firm, the fire was a mixed blessing. Although much material was lost, the necessity of rebuilding the central business district heralded a deluge of work, with the firm conducting up to ten surveys a day. It is said that downtown Baltimore was re-laid-out from the firm's records. The volume of surveys conducted in a year more than doubled in 1904 to 800, from 395 the year before. But it didn't end there. Not until 1918 did the level of activity diminish to pre-fire levels. This suggests that the general building boom precipitated by the fire triggered additional projects outside the "burnt district." Or it could be that the firm's market share increased at the expense of its competitors. No one knows, because no data survives to answer the question, if data ever existed.

Howard C. Sutton, son of J. Howard Sutton, began his first tenure at the firm at this time, which would last until 1916.

The Martenet Map of Maryland was not issued again.

In 1906 both George E. Wimmer and Howard D. Tustin, Sr. joined the firm. High school chums having just been graduated from Baltimore City College, the pair would work together for the next 35 years.

Previous: The next generation
Next: A change in direction

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