A community of Baltimore artists is reeling after a fire that broke out late Saturday night in a historic building in the Barclay neighborhood damaged studio spaces and ruined works of art.
The James E. Hooper House on the corner of East 23rd Street and St. Paul Street appears on the National Historic Register. Built in 1886 and named for the president of a large Baltimore-area cotton milling operation, the free-standing masonry building housed about a dozen artists’ studios and the Hooper House Gallery.
Baltimore Fire Department officials said crews arrived at the four-story building at 11:50 pm Saturday, where heavy fire was showing through the attic and the roof. Spokeswoman Blair Adams said no injuries were reported and that people inside the building were able to escape.
“It was a lot of fire in that one little area,” Adams said.
The fire was extinguished just after 1 am, she said, adding that an investigation is ongoing.
Scout Roll, an artist who runs Hooper House Gallery with partner Buddy Cosner, was inside the building with Cosner and the couple’s cat Fork when the fire started.
Roll said the couple saw lights flashing outside the window, then heard an alarm go off seconds later. “When we opened the door, the firefighters were already up to the second floor with a hose,” Roll said.
After knocking on doors to alert others about the danger, Roll helped firefighters navigate the building’s confusing layout, which includes a servant’s staircase.
“I explained to them how that worked and I went out and sat in front of the building and said Hail Marys,” Roll said.
Although Roll’s paintings survived, sketches and iterations of painting ideas sustained water damage.
“I have to decide if I start fresh,” Roll said, or whether to imitate artist John Baldessari, who cremated his art and baked it into cookies.
“I’m traumatized and grateful to be alive,” Roll said. “I’m grateful that we’re all alive and that we all got out OK.”
Mike Mier and Matt Oppenheim purchased the building in 2018 to continue the previous owners’ vision for the space as a creative hub.
Oppenheim wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday that he was “devastated.”
“The property was just starting to hit its stride after a lot of work by so many,” he wrote. “I am intent to build this property back in a way that honors its historic tradition and helps the affected community.”
An Oct. 1 fundraising event run by culinary business Marwas will be held at Our Time Kitchen, after being set to take place at Hooper House, Oppenheim said. Proceeds will go to the artists whose work and livelihoods were affected by the fire.
The blaze damaged Andrea Pyatt’s studio on the fourth floor so severely that it has not yet been safe for her to go see its condition.
“So I have to wait and just sift through the rubble,” Pyatt said. “I took the brunt of it.”
Pyatt, a single mom who works in textiles, had planned to visit her studio late Saturday night while her children were with family. She laid down for what was meant to be a short nap before leaving and instead woke up around 1 am to a phone call about the fire.
Here projects in progress, along with antique machines, were destroyed.
“It was my place of refuge during COVID,” Pyatt said, where she made face masks, ran virtual sewing classes and escaped the isolation of early pandemic lockdowns. “A really really beautiful space where I could just be and create and feel safe.”
Rowan Bathurst’s first solo exhibition, “Girl, Woman, Warrior,” was on display at Hooper House, where about 20 of her pieces suffered water damage but remained intact.
“They also just smell like fire,” Bathurst said. “The water damage was bad. The smoke stains are bad. I had a studio there and the roof is caving in.”
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She described relationships with other artists in the building as close and friendly, and said recent shows had brought the gallery new attention.
“It was a really awesome family,” she said. “It was just getting big as well.”
Lauren O’Donnell had moved things into her fourth-floor studio just a week before the fire.
“I lost everything,” said the photographer, who describes her style as “kinsfolk aesthetic with a photojournalist twist.”
O’Donnell had not yet viewed the damage Monday but said she likely lost hundreds of dollars of lighting equipment, along with props and backdrops. She also said she was already mourning the loss of the artist community and the character of the historic building, which had the perfect ambiance and fixtures for romantic boudoir photo shoots.
Getting her studio there was a stroke of luck, O’Donnell said, and she isn’t sure what she will do next.
“It was a great opportunity but I don’t think I’ll be available to afford something like that,” she said. “I’m honestly devastated.”