'Rescued' buildings preserve past and future NEW LIFE

May 22, 1991|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Evening Sun Staff

HISTORY ISN'T JUST a thing of the past for the people of Coleman Manor. Their Walbrook Avenue home is the former Robert W. Coleman School (School No. 142), where thousands of children attended elementary school from 1903 until the late 1970s. In 1988, the school opened once again as subsidized elderly housing.

Willie Griffin remembers escorting her son to and from the classroom that is now her apartment. "I can see you coming up those steps to get me," Griffin's son, now 40, tells her when he visits.

At first, the thought of living in the old red brick school, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, didn't sit well with Griffin. "I couldn't see myself going to the same place my son went to school at. After I got there, it was nice," she says.

In the name of progress and financial gain, untold buildings among them many beautiful public schools, have been razed in Baltimore. Others, such as the American Brewery, also on the National Register, stand vacant, dilapidated and neglected.

But thanks to an elaborate patchwork of tax credits and federal, state and local funding methods, a growing profusion of notable exceptions -- including Tindeco Wharf apartments, Westminster Hall, Marlboro Square in the old loft district, and now the former B&O Warehouse in Camden Yards, the site of the new stadium -- have been rescued by a process known as "adaptive use."

Victories over the wrecking ball have given state preservationists cause to celebrate May as Maryland Historic Preservation Month. Last week's National Preservation Week took note of our architectural heritage as well. This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, which expanded protection of historical monuments to include a diverse collection of structures and districts.

Today, Baltimore has 141 National Register listings for individual buildings and 24 National Register historic districts. The city has also placed 38 buildings and eight historic districts on its own landmark list. Many of those buildings and districts have survived -- not just as register listings, but as breathing (x structures -- as a result of being recycled for reuse.

Despite its considerable architectural fatalities, "The city was in some ways a leader in adaptive use," says Fred Shoken, president of the preservation group Baltimore Heritage.

Mount Royal Station, transformed from the vacant B&O railroad station into gallery and studio space for the Maryland Institute of Art in 1967, "marks the starting point for the whole thing. In some ways [the idea] was revolutionary -- taking a train station and turning it into an art school," Shoken says.

Its champions credit Mount Royal Station, on both national and local landmark lists, as the catalyst for converting the rundown neighborhood of auto showrooms and bars into a vital cultural district.

As adaptive use evolves, it is "getting better and better all the time," Shoken says, citing the joint venture renovation of the Louisa May Alcott school -- also on the National Register -- by Struever Bros., Eccles and Rouse and Carter Development Corp. At the former Park Heights school, original blackboards serve as message centers, and maple flooring, wainscoting and tin ceilings remain. "Some of the early reuse attempts . . . were almost gut-type jobs, Shoken says.

Bettyjean Murphy, president of the Carter Development Corp.restored Alcott and Coleman Manor with people like Willie Griffin, and her neighbors outside the school building, in mind. Historic restoration is for poor people, too, she says.

For Murphy, recently selected to convert School No. 34 in Washington Village into another affordable apartment house, preserving the past is the key to a neighborhood's future. The Walbrook community, for example, rallied together to make Coleman, once an eyesore, a vital, local hub, she says.

"Communities are really based on a sense of history and a belief in the future. That's why people are involved in community organizations. They really think their neighborhoods and what they stand for are important. They are also planning for the future," Murphy says."

Griffin's co-residents at Coleman Manor share the vibrancy of living in a place once teeming with teachers and children. Tenant Aletha Williams had a daughter at Coleman. "I used to love those floors," she says of the school's hardwood surfaces. For her, the school was an opportunity to escape escalating rents in her old ** place and return to the neighborhood she loves.

On the other hand, Hoit Hamm grew up in the same Walbrook neighborhood and remembers the days before integration, when School No. 142 was all white. "I didn't pay it no mind," says Hoit, who is African-American. "Things were changing then."

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