Community tries to delay razing of old synagogue

December 21, 1992|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

A little-known symbol of Jewish heritage in Baltimore will soon meet the wrecker's ball, unless Baltimore's housing commissioner responds to a formal request from the Little Italy Community Organization to revoke a demolition permit he issued last month.

Housing commissioner Robert Hearn issued a demolition permit Nov. 17 for 230 S. High St., a vacant, Formstone-clad building at the center of Little Italy. Owner Michael Pastore Sr. wants to raze it to create a parking lot for 24 to 30 cars.

The three-story building most recently served as a food warehouse for Pastore Inc., a distributor of Italian groceries, and still bears the sign of a Pastore subsidiary, Sun of Italy Food Products.

Before it was clad in Formstone and converted to a warehouse, it was the home of Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol, once one of the largest Jewish congregations in Baltimore.

Richard Ingrao, president of the Little Italy Community Organization, wrote to Mr. Hearn last week asking that he "revoke or delay" the demolition permit so the community can discuss it.

Mr. Ingrao said he is concerned about long-range plans for the property and troubled that the permit was issued "without any knowledge of the community whatsoever."

"It just came from nowhere, and it's undermining community unity," Mr. Ingrao said of the permit. "We don't want people to think they can come in and just tear down buildings in our neighborhood. We want to keep stability in the area. We're concerned about what's going to be there."

Bill Toohey, a housing department spokesman, said Friday that the commissioner had not yet received Mr. Ingrao's letter. Once he receives it, Mr. Toohey said, Mr. Hearn will decide what steps to take.

Mr. Toohey added that community review was not technically required because the property does not fall within an urban renewal area or an historic district and parking is a permitted use for that parcel according to the city's zoning code.

Fred Shoken, president of the preservation advocacy group known as Baltimore Heritage, said he believes city officials shouldn't let buildings be razed for parking lots because that erodes the tax base.

"This is going to be a big hole in the middle of the neighborhood," he said. "A building like that could be adapted in hundreds of ways. It could be a real centerpiece for the neighborhood."

"If the city is interested in preserving the character of Little Italy, it's just the kind of building it shouldn't lose," agreed Bernard Fishman, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland.

The building was constructed in 1846 as the High Street Methodist Episcopal Church and sold in 1899 to a group that converted it to Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol.

At its peak, the synagogue had 1,500 "seat holders," making it one of the city's largest Jewish congregations, Mr. Fishman said. It became a warehouse in the 1930s, after the congregation moved to Baltimore Street.

"It's grotesque, and it's comical," Mr. Fishman said of the building's appearance. "But in a way, that's why it has been preserved. It's the only synagogue I've ever heard of that has been turned into a warehouse for Italian foods and covered with Formstone."

Mr. Fishman said the interior is badly deteriorated and most elements of Jewish significance have been removed. The Torah ark that graced one wall has been dismantled. On the ceiling are remnants of paintings that depict scenes and objects of relevance to Judaism, such as Jerusalem, the 10 Commandments, Stars of David and the exodus to Babylon.

Mr. Pastore said the building has been vacant since the late 1980s, when his company consolidated its operations at 6101 E. Lombard St.

He said he tried for three years to sell the building for $500,000 but was unable to find a buyer. During that time, he said, he was approached by prospects who wanted to convert the building to new uses, such as a seafood restaurant, but he turned them away because he didn't think the community would approve of the uses they proposed.

Mr. Pastore added that the building is in "terrible shape," with falling Formstone and a leaking roof, and would cost $1.5 million to rehabilitate.

He said that it is now under contract to a buyer who has no plans except to operate the property as a parking lot and that he wants to proceed with demolition before anyone gets injured by falling debris.

"It's an eyesore and a danger to the community," he said. "Who needs a Formstone building with part of the Formstone missing? It's not a desirable thing. It's a piece of property that's past its time."

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