For more than 50 years, the art deco landmark in South Charles Village was the headquarters of Baltimore's school system, an elegant home for the city's top educators.
When the school administration moved to North Avenue in 1987, community leaders were assured that the granite-fronted structure at 3 E. 25th St. and its two-story annex at 33 E. 25th St. would be recycled for uses beneficial to the neighborhood. Until this spring, both were scheduled for conversion to a $6 million housing complex called Lovegrove Court.
But in recent weeks, the vacant Department of Education buildings have become the center of Baltimore's latest preservation controversy, potential losers in a development plan that could lead to the demolition of up to nine structures along the Charles Street corridor.
All fall within a one-block area where Safeway Inc. wants to build a $3 million supermarket. Other buildings targeted for demolition include the Chesapeake Cadillac-Jaguar showroom at 2401 N. Charles St. and six rowhouses on East 24th Street.
Safeway representatives want to construct the market where the car showroom and rowhouses now stand, and they want to raze the education buildings for a parking lot.
But preservationists say so much demolition would be a "visual disaster" for the community.
"I don't think Baltimore can afford to lose any of the three buildings," said Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, vice president of Baltimore Heritage. "The Chesapeake Cadillac building is one of the finest art deco buildings in the city, and to see it chopped up in any way would be obscene. The education buildings may look run-down but they're still very functional, just waiting for people with vision to use them."
Lawrence Principe, a member of the South Charles Village Community Association, said his organization sees benefits from Safeway's investment but also wants to preserve "the feel and character" of the neighborhood. "The problem we have is there are already too many parking lots, breaking up the street scape."
Featuring elaborate fluting and other art deco details, the main education building was designed by Lucius White and completed in 1931.
It is connected to a two-story brick building that dates from 1890. The annex was George Peabody School No. 54 before the city made it part of the school system headquarters.
Baltimore's top community development officials say they would allow both to be razed to create the parking lot that Safeway wants, because they believe Safeway's project merits the city's support.
Preservation advocates have proposed a compromise. They suggest that the city remove the less-distinctive rear portions of the education buildings and use the land for a parking lot. But they want the city to save the front portions of those buildings and recycle them to house new merchants compatible with the supermarket. They'd especially like to see a bookstore in one building, since 25th Street is becoming a magnet for book dealers -- and Baltimore bills itself as "The City That Reads."
Last week, the idea got support from members of the housing department's own Design Advisory Panel. After reviewing preliminary plans for the supermarket, they urged Safeway to find a way to build the store and save key sections of the 25th Street buildings.
They also encouraged Safeway and its architect, Cho, Wilks & Benn, to explore ways to make the west and south facades of the Cadillac showroom part of the market's exterior. "That takes it beyond being an ordinary Safeway project," said panelist Mario Schack.
It's unclear exactly what Safeway will do. But it was a constructive exchange of ideas, one that could lead to a much-improved project for the community. Safeway representatives seemed receptive, promising to consider the suggestions as they fine-tune their designs. "We're trying to cooperate," said John Lopez, Safeway's director of construction.
The block where Safeway wants to raze nine buildings is part of a larger area that has been nominated for designation as the Old Goucher College Historic District where the college was located before moving to Towson 30 years ago. The Maryland Historic Trust will hold a public hearing on the nomination Tuesday at 10 a.m. at 100 Community Place in Crownsville.