Peabody Book Shop gets reprieve Panel bars demolition of 1869 building in historic district

June 01, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube, a once-popular gathering spot that drew the famous and near-famous, has been saved from the wrecker's ball -- at least temporarily.

The city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation voted unanimously yesterday to designate the vacant four-story structure at 913 N. Charles St. a "contributing building" in the Mount Vernon historic district.

That means it may not be torn down without a follow-up hearing to determine whether it poses an economic hardship for the owners to repair it. That hearing has tentatively been set for the middle of the month.

The commission voted unanimously to explore whether the city should cite the owners, 913 North Charles Street Limited Partnership, for "demolition by neglect" -- intentionally letting the building deteriorate by not repairing defects such as a hole in the roof.

The votes came after commissioners listened to more than an hour of testimony about the building and bookstore, whose patrons included H. L. Mencken and F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with an eclectic mix of artists, musicians and poets.

The owners applied last month for a permit to demolish the building on the grounds that it posed a threat to public safety. The building was condemned last month because part of its north wall is buckling.

Because the building is in a city historic district, it may not be razed without approval from the preservation commission. If the commissioners had determined that the structure did not contribute to the historic district, the owners would have had legal grounds to ask the commission to grant a demolition permit immediately.

Several Mount Vernon residents said the owners have allowed the building to deteriorate over the years by not maintaining it properly. They said they would like the owners to repair at least the facade, and also to repair or reconstruct the rest.

"I think they have been very irresponsible in their ownership and their stewardship of the building," said Eva Higgins, a resident of the 900 block of St. Paul St.

"The reason why the building is in such deplorable condition is that has been not only neglected but abused. I think the owners would be delighted to see the building collapse."

Jancey Lister, a Mount Vernon denizen, said she knew of at least one local businessman who wants to buy the building and repair it, but that the owners wouldn't sell.

The ownership group includes prominent architects in Baltimore, among them Richard C. Donkervoet and other principals of the architectural firm Cochran, Stephenson & Donkervoet. Other partners include James Duncan, formerly of PersonaCare Inc., and Randy McCuaig of Northmark Corp., the property manager.

They were represented at the hearing by William Sammons, an attorney who said the building was not worth saving.

"The neighborhood, and the city in general, contain numerous structures of this type and from the same period," he said. "We do not believe the building is of particular architectural interest or significance."

Eric Holcomb, a preservation analyst with the city agency, said the 1869 building meets all four of the city's criteria for designation of contributing buildings, including architectural significance and association with famous people.

It is perhaps most important, he said, as home to a precursor of Borders, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers that thrive today.

For many years, the Peabody Book Shop was "a national icon" and "a physical embodiment of the virtues of free thought and free press," he said.

The owners had offered to sell the Peabody building to the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association for $1, but they withdrew their offer when it had not been accepted before the preservation commission meeting began.

Tyler Gearhart, an administrator with Preservation Maryland, said the statewide preservation advocacy group is available to provide financial assistance to help renovate the building.

"We believe that it ought to be preserved," he said. "We are willing to work with the owners or any potential owners to see that is done."

Pub Date: 6/01/96

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