Partnership to save old Govans mansion Centerpiece of housing for elderly BALTIMORE CITY

October 06, 1993|By Frank P.L. Somerville | Frank P.L. Somerville,Staff Writer

Shrouded in vines, the ornamental slate of its mansard roof peeling away, its high window frames sagging and its broad, stone north wall near collapse, the vacant old Gallagher house in Govans presented a sad picture of decay yesterday -- even in the bright sunshine.

But its two decades as the North Baltimore neighborhood's most dramatic symbol of suburban blight are about to end.

And not with its demolition.

Thanks to a pioneering partnership of eight churches, six Christian denominations, historical and architectural preservationists, business and community groups in Govans, elected officials and the city and federal governments, the Victorian house is due to be transformed into the elegant centerpiece of 40 moderately priced apartments for the elderly on a 2.2-acre wooded site.

Full occupancy by Christmas 1995 is confidently planned.

The Rev. John R. Sharp, pastor of Govans Presbyterian Church who has spearheaded this and other interdenominational ventures in the area, did not hesitate yesterday to attach a new symbolism to the dilapidated but imposing city-owned house at 431 Notre Dame Lane, built in 1855 and expanded in 1857 and 1873.

As Mr. Sharp and three other Govans ministers inspected the results of Saturday's spirited assault on the property's overgrown undergrowth by 16 neighborhood volunteers, he suggested its new place in Baltimore history. "A model of cooperation," he said.

The impetus for the neighborhood cleanup effort and the buoyant optimism of the ministers was a nearly $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the city's gift of the property to a consortium of nonprofit developers -- the Govans Ecumenical Development Corp. (GEDCO), of which Mr. Sharp is president, and Presbyterian Homes Inc.

Julia Skolnik Pierson, executive director of GEDCO, said an agreement with the Maryland Historical Trust means that the architectural integrity of the three-story house -- visible behind a Ford dealership in the 5100 block of York Road -- will be carefully preserved as it is turned into six one-bedroom apartments and public spaces.

Thirty-four apartments will be added in a new wing.

Under provisions of the HUD grant, construction is to begin within 18 months, but not before an archaeological dig of the grounds -- also mandated by the agreement with the historical trust.

The mansion is on both the National Register of Historic Places and the city's landmark list. Its significance, according to the Baltimore Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation, is as a reminder of "a time when Govanstown was a thriving suburban village surrounded by country estates."

Although the earliest part of the house was begun in 1855 by Dr. Benjamin Woods, it takes its name from a wealthy grocer -- Patrick Gallagher -- who acquired it in 1873. It remained in the Gallagher family for almost a century.

James T. Wollon Jr., a preservation architect from Havre de Grace, has been hired as a consultant by the nonprofit developers.

He will assist the principal architects, Smeallie, Orrick & Janka of Baltimore.

In yesterday's inspection of the property, Mr. Sharp and Ms. Pierson were joined by Shannon Jeffords, secretary of GEDCO, and three clergymen on GEDCO's board -- the Rev. James M. Woody Jr. of Gregory Memorial Baptist Church; the Rev. Carol H. Youse of Holy Comforter Lutheran Church; and the Rev. William G. Cook, a retired United Methodist minister long active in the neighborhood.

Other churches that are part of GEDCO are Nativity Episcopal, Govans-Boundary United Methodist, Pleasant Hope Baptist and St. Mary's and St. Pius X Roman Catholic. Govans Economic Management Senate, York Road Development Inc. and Govanstowne Business Association round out the GEDCO partnership.

The group's previous accomplishments include Epiphany House, a Civil War-era hotel at York Road and Bellona Avenue that was restored and adapted as a 33-unit residential and health care facility for the frail elderly, and Ascension Homes, three scattered group residences for emotionally or mentally disabled people.

About the new Govans venture, Ms. Pierson said, "Everyone is a winner. The neighborhood will be rid of a blighted eyesore. An historic building will be preserved. And much-needed housing will be made available for low-income seniors."

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