Preserving Baltimore character

October 07, 1994

The acronym CHAP connotes something friendly. But many Baltimoreans can attest to the fact that the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation can be a real pain and a stickler for authenticity. Yet as this group now commemorates its 30th anniversary, it is clear that Baltimore is a far better and more interesting place because of its efforts.

CHAP's birth in 1964 was closely connected to efforts to win official protection for Mount Vernon, the city's most prestigious public square. Several of its significant buildings, decayed and underused, were threatened with demolition.

In the end, destruction was not totally avoided. The priceless Waterloo Row on St. Paul Place was lost. But the rest of the square was saved and is now experiencing a renaissance because of the efforts of such key players as the Peabody Institute, Connie Caplan and the Walters Art Gallery.

The designation of Mount Vernon as a city historic district also started a trend. Over the years, the same protection has been given to 17 other architecturally significant areas, ranging from Stirling Street and Seton Hill in the inner city to such suburban oases as Roland Park and Mount Washington. In each, CHAP has to approve external changes on buildings so that neighborhood character does not change.

Because of budget restraints and shifting political priorities, CHAP's first three decades have not always been easy. But CHAP does not exist in isolation. Its work has greatly increased the community's awareness about the value of architectural and historical heritage.

That, in turn, spawned advocacy groups, above all Baltimore Heritage, or enabled the publication of volumes such as John Dorsey's and James D. Dilt's "Guide to Baltimore Architecture." That book, which first appeared in 1973, is still indispensable but badly in need of updating.

CHAP's critics compare the organization to a dog that has an angry bark but little bite. It is true that Baltimore lost a number of landmarks in the past 30 years that ought to have been saved. It is a tribute to CHAP's work, however, that developers nowadays increasingly consider alternatives to outright demolition. This has led to some spectacular restorations that combine new construction. The Marsh & McLennan iron building at 300 West Pratt Street is just one example.

The most recent neighborhood given a historic designation is suburban Bancroft Park, between Park Heights Avenue and Cross Country Boulevard. Its homes were constructed between 1906 and the late 1920s. History is edging closer to modern times.

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