Bringing down the Cochran house Boys' Latin hoping to demolish landmark in North Baltimore

January 08, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

One of the first and most visible works of modern architecture in Baltimore, the Alexander S. Cochran house on West Lake Avenue, caused a furor when it was built nearly 50 years ago.

Now the owner wants to tear it down, raising questions about the building's significance as a local landmark and whether it is worth saving.

Boys' Latin School, which owns the house and has used it since 1974 as its lower school, has received a pledge of $4 million for constructing a replacement. And school administrators want to put it exactly where the house has stood since the Cochran family built it.

When Mr. Cochran, scion of a well-to-do local family, bought land in 1948 for a home for himself and his wife, residents of the exclusive Poplar Hill section of North Baltimore assumed that the neighborhood would gain a traditional-looking house.

The Harvard-trained architect shocked them by erecting a traffic stopper -- a glass and wood structure that one angry neighbor dubbed Cochran's Bar and Grill. The architect's mother refused to set foot inside.

Now, long after modern architecture became part of the mainstream, the community appears likely to get a building whose design would have pleased conservative Baltimore. But there are those in the neighborhood and elsewhere who do not want to see the Cochran house disappear.

The three-story replacement would be more traditional than the boxy house in the 900 block of W. Lake Ave. As designed by Sanders Designs of Timonium and Easton, it would have Flemish bond brick, a gabled roofline, white columns and a clock tower.

Dyson Ehrhardt, director of development for Boys' Latin, said the mechanical systems in the old house are wearing out, and school administrators want to upgrade the learning environment. They have concluded that the house cannot be modified further.

A 1973 graduate, J. Duncan Smith of Sinclair Broadcast Group, has pledged to provide the entire $4 million construction cost of a new building.

After considering a variety of sites on their campus, which straddles Lake Avenue, Boys' Latin trustees decided that the best location was the site of the Cochran house. After classes end in June, the house is to come down and modular classrooms are to be set up for temporary use.

When complete in the fall of 1997, the replacement building would have 16 classrooms, music rooms and specialized laboratories for languages, science, math and other subjects.

"Alex Cochran's home was a tremendous home and a great lower school for a while, but it was time for a change," Mr. Ehrhardt said. "The classrooms need to be more modern, more updated."

'A piece of Baltimore history'

The school's decision to demolish the Cochran house -- which won a prestigious design award from the American Institute of Architects -- came the same year the Maryland Historical Society launched an exhibition on Mr. Cochran and published a book about the work of his firm, now known as Cochran, Stephenson & Donkervoet.

Mr. Cochran died in 1989, and his wife, Caroline, is in ill health. Some of their friends and former neighbors bemoan the demolition plan. But others, including one of their sons, say Boys' Latin is wise to build on the same crest that Mr. Cochran chose.

Boys' Latin must obtain local demolition and building permits before work can proceed, and school officials have been meeting with neighboring property owners and others to inform them of their plans. The Cochran house is not protected by landmark designation.

"I think it would be a crime to destroy it," said Betty Cooke, co-owner of the Store Limited and a friend of the Cochran family. "It's the kind of thing that becomes more valuable with the years. It's a piece of Baltimore history."

Charles Wagandt, owner of a neighboring property, expressed concern that school officials had not sufficiently explored options for saving the building.

"I want Boys' Latin to have the kind of school they need," he said. "But it seems to me they ought to be able to address their needs and find a way to save a significant part of the Cochran house, too. It was a breakthrough building for its time."

Architectural historian Phoebe Stanton suggested that the house could be an ideal residence for faculty members or administrators if properly restored.

"I wish the house had not been changed," Dr. Stanton said. "It was a symbol of who he [Mr. Cochran] was."

'A big, long boxcar'

The Cochran house was completed in 1950, nine years after Frank Lloyd Wright built a house on Cross Country Boulevard, and thus was not the first modern building in Baltimore.

But it caused more of a stir than the Wright house because it was larger and in a more prominent location.

Low-lying and flat-roofed, the Cochran house also was significant because it embodied many of the design theories that were gaining attention nationally at the time.

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