Historic buildings await restoration Preservationists hope development won't be too late.

January 14, 1992|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Evening Sun Staff

Inside what is now a battered brick shell at Thames and South Bond streets, flagons once clanked as prominent gentlemen debated the issues of the day. Windows that are now blocked up once afforded a view of busy Fells Point in its 18th century heyday as Baltimore's deep-water port.

What appears today as an outpost of urban blight is one of the last of the LondonCoffee House taverns that were common to Eastern seaport cities.

Next door, as undistinguished in its decline, is a larger brick building that shipwright George Wells built as a home about 1779.

A developer has plans to restore both these buildings as part of a residential and retail project, but hasn't decided when to go ahead.

As a result of the uncertainty, preservationists fear that the buildings will crumble before the work begins. They hope to meet soon with the developer to discuss ways of keeping the buildings intact in the meantime.

The historic buildings and nearby properties are owned by Constellation Real Estate Group, a subsidiary of Baltimore Gas & Electric Co.

Constellation has won preliminary city design approval for a plan to convert the Wells house into apartments and the coffee house into a single residence, as well as to build six new town houses along that block of Bond Street. Constellation also is planning a parking garage nearby, with retail shops on the first floor.

The company says it intends to restore the Wells house and the London Coffee House, using as much as possible of the remaining buildings.

"I believe them," said Carolyn Donkervoet, executive director of the Society for the Preservation of Fells Point and Federal Hill. Regular reports from the society or from neighbors could alert Constellation to further deterioration that could be repaired, she said.

And signs describing their historic significance might deter passersby from contributing to the mess of empty beer and liquor bottles around the buildings.

Wind and rain now pour in the back windows, where someone knocked out the cinder blocks and boards that once sealed them.

"We all need to sit and brainstorm," Donkervoet said, to help the community develop "an awareness that the buildings are not old, junked up buildings."

Signs, she said, might suggest that the buildings are "on their way to a much better fate."

Constellation periodically applies more board and cement blocks when vandals break in.

"They [the vandals] dig holes," said Florence Beck Kurdle, the company's vice president for development. "Occasionally people get into them."

She said that going ahead with plans for the two buildings will depend on Constellation developing other properties that would create the need for the nearby garage.

"Until we do something with those sites, we don't need structured parking," Kurdle said, "we don't need to do a garage and we don't need to do the houses."

Meanwhile, Donkervoet worries that the London Coffee Shop and theWells house meet the same fate as another nearby 18th century building, which began to buckle and was condemned by the city last year.

The lineage of the London Coffee House in the rough-and-tumble maritime district was probably discovered during the research for the National Register of Historic Places, Donkervoet said.

According to research conducted to qualify Fells Point for the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, the earliest record of the London Coffee House is in a deed dated Aug. 6, 1774, conveying several properties in the area from John Cattell, "late mariner and lately a storekeeper," to John Stevenson, a "gentleman."

The deed mentioned that a man named John Elliott was in the middle of a three-year lease on the building, for a business "distinguished and known by the name of London Coffee House."

By the 20th century, the coffee house had become a neighborhood saloon with a pool table. A woman who asked to be identified only as an "old lady" who has lived all her life in Fells Point remembers going there as a child to fetch a 25-cent pitcher of beer that her parents served with steamed crabs. She would also stop by the Wells House in later years, when it was a confectionery, to buy soda and candy.

Later on, in the 1960s, the buildings were joined together as an industrial laundry.

Where today's passing bar hoppers and Fells Point tourists might see ruins, Donkervoet sees distinctive 18th-century architectural features and local history to be preserved, by whoever owns the buildings.

"We see these houses as being held in trust by whoever owns them for the citizens of Baltimore," Donkervoet said. She said that although property owners may not feel quite that level of public responsibility, "that's the way preservationists look at it."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.