Charles Village landmarks going to the wreckers

August 18, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

Take your last looks at Charles Village's Chesapeake Cadillac and its neighbor, the old Department of Education buildings.

The Safeway supermarket chain has cleared the major hurdles to take this site and replace it with a parking lot and grocery store, thereby dealing historic preservation in North Baltimore a major blow.

Any hope that community pressure might have saved this complex of neighborhood landmarks at Charles and 25th streets seems to have evaporated. Preservationists stumbled. Other residents think a new grocery chain will jump-start a static 25th Street corridor.

But once the wrecking cranes and dump trucks move in, a large chorus will rue the loss of these well-built and well-designed structures.

The 1930 Cadillac showroom, at 2401 N. Charles St., possesses an aristocratic tone. Well bred, quiet, understated, its Indiana limestone walls would be at home on upper Connecticut Avenue in Northwest Washington. The 24th Street corner has a finely sculpted eagle. There is classic lettering sculpted into the stone over the main entrance.

The auto showroom has a tile floor that looks like something out of the set for "Sunset Boulevard." It's great and distinguished, a building that deserves more respect than the support of a few protesters.

The old and long vacant Department of Education headquarters buildings are the right scale for 25th Street. They fit in neatly. The minute they disappear they will be missed. The newer of the two buildings, also built in 1930, is a small Art Deco office building. Adjacent to it is an 1890s public school that once served the male school-aged population of the old Peabody Heights (that is to say, pre-Charles Village) neighborhood. Also slated to fall are rowhouses in the first block of E. 24th St.

The Safeway project is one of those classic cases of cold commerce trampling preservation ideals. The supermarket chain demands a cleared lot so that it can have easy drive-in parking and accommodate the dimensions of a strip mall grocery store.

But 25th and Charles is not a strip mall address. It is an urban neighborhood full of 90-year-old buildings. Yet the city's Department of Housing and Community Development is adamant that the 2400 block of N. Charles St. will imitate the commercial jumble of the major suburban arteries.

As one who has lived for many years in Charles Village, I do not look forward to even a passing resemblance to the kind of suburban mess that characterizes the York-Belair- Harford-Liberty-Ritchie Highway-Route 40 sprawl.

Baltimore has yet to learn the lesson of demolishing this type of auto showroom. Three years ago a splendid 1920s auto palace was razed at 29th Street and Remington Avenue for a drug discount store designed in a stamped out, cinder-block fashion. In a scenario similar to the Safeway negotiations, the developers claimed it was not feasible to accommodate the old building.

So this pre-1929-Stock-Market-crash showroom used in the filming of Barry Levinson's "Tin Men" was razed. Much of the site is now an asphalt parking lot; on the remainder sits an F&M drug discount store. The Remington neighborhood was robbed of masonry treasures.

Could the F&M store not have been housed within the large auto showroom and its extensive garage?

It is ironic that the fancy city auto showrooms of 65 years ago are falling to accommodate parking lots. These buildings were designed to sell the excitement and stylishness of driving, to a public used to walking and taking a streetcar.

The old auto cathedrals were Detroit's way of selling its machines amid the trappings of oak doors, wrought iron lanterns and tile floors. Some of the salesmen's offices looked like church confessionals.

The automobile that was popularized in these fancy showrooms has made them obsolete.

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