SHE wept as she saw for the first time the blackened remains of the building that launched the careers of comedians such as Eddie Izzard and Rhona Cameron.

For Karen Koren it was a crushing blow to see how the fire that swept through Edinburgh's Old Town over the weekend had destroyed her lifetime's work.

The 52-year-old artistic director of the Gilded Balloon, the world-famous comedy venue, said yesterday: ''I can't believe it's all gone. I can't believe it's all gone. It's 17 years work up in smoke.

''All my personal memorabilia, including signed photos of the many comedians who started at the Gilded Balloon when they were younger, have been burned to ashes. I can't see that it will ever be replaced. I'll try my best.''

The club had become the foremost venue for comedians during the Edinburgh Festival and a popular bar during the year.

It was where other top funny men such Phil Kaye, Steve Coogan, and Bill Bailey got their first breaks.

Ironically Saturday, the day the fire broke out, had started out with great joy for Ms Koren. She had gone to Fife to visit Eve, her new-born grand-daughter, when a member of her staff phoned on Saturday night to tell her about a fire in premises nearby.

''I remember his exact words. He said: 'You're never going to believe this - there's a fire.'

''He phoned back a couple of times with updates but it was around 10pm when I was driving back to Edinburgh that I realised how serious it was.

''We had all been hoping the fire could be contained but even when I heard how bad it was getting I just didn't want to believe it. But by 1am I knew it was curtains for us.''

Since the fire devastated 13 buildings in the vicinity of Cowgate, South Bridge Street, and Chambers, Ms Koren has received messages of sympathy from top comedians and friends around the world.

Her mobile phone was bombarded with text messages from friends in Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.

Lynn Ferguson, the comedian, sent ''congratulations and commiserations'', referring to Ms Koren's mixture of family joy and professional disappointment.

Ms Koren said: ''Phil Kaye phoned me to say how sorry he was. He was really shaken by the news and so have many of my friends from all over the world.''

Peter Irvine, Unique Events organiser, also pledged his support and shock at the loss of such a high-profile venue.

Paul Gudgin, director of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, stopped in the street and offered Ms Koren temporary premises.

Ms Koren said she and her staff have moved to temporary premises at the Assembly Rooms in George Street and that the fire would not affect any of their commitments.

Ms Koren launched her Gilded Balloon in the building that was formerly J and R Allan's department store, and her venture has been responsible for encouraging a wealth of Scottish talent.

The name is taken from a seventeenth-century hatters that stood on the site of the building.

Others whose buildings were caught up in the Edinburgh inferno were also in the Old Town yesterday to see how much damage had been done to their businesses.

Iain Pert, operations manager for Festival Inns, witnessed three of the company's establishments, including a nightspot that opened only two weeks ago after a (pounds) 2.5m make-over, being damaged.

Speaking of the devastation at seeing ''three places down in one night'', he paid tribute to the courage of the firefighters, adding: ''I can't say enough about their professionalism.''

The Festival Inns' premises were Faith nightclub, the new 500-capacity establishment, in the Cowgate; Biblos, a bar restaurant in Chambers Street; and the nearby Beat Jazz Basement, a live music venue.

Mr Pert relived the events of Saturday night, saying he had been preparing for the arrival of a private party event around 9pm at Faith, an old church that had previously been Wilkie House, a nightclub.

He said an escalation of a fire around nearby Loca, an unconnected nightclub, led him to evacuate Faith and then the other two Festival Inns properties. ''It was very professional and the customers were well behaved,'' he said.

Mr Pert said there had been smoke and water damage at Biblos and Beat Jazz Basement, but he did not believe the damage was substantial.

He said Faith appeared to be structurally sound, but there had been substantial smoke and water damage.

He said it was distressing to see the new club in that state just two weeks after its opening.

''There is that horrible smell of smoke,'' Mr Pert added.

Mr Pert said the three premises employed almost 70 full-time staff and they would be found work in other places while the company would attempt to switch functions booked at the three venues to their other properties in the city.

Hafid Mahboubi, owner of La Belle Angele nightclub, said he was unhappy at reports the fire had started in his premises.

''This is a disaster for us,'' he said. ''We cannot just move to another building because we need an entertainment licence. Trade will be non-existent from now on. The only thing left for me to do is to talk to loss adjusters and insurers.''