Preserving Baltimore's uniqueness Demolition city: Many irreplaceable landmarks are threatened as population shrinks.

September 14, 1997

WHAT WOULD Baltimore be like if the Great Fire of 1904 had never happened? Would the old Sun Iron Building be standing? How about the wonderfully elaborate Second Empire pile of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which graced the corner of Baltimore and Calvert streets?

Those architecturally unique structures were among buildings obliterated in the catastrophic conflagration 93 years ago. But it does not take a fire to destroy significant edifices.

Dozens of landmarks have been lost because they have become vacant or are perceived to have outlived their usefulness.

In this bicentennial year of the city's incorporation, Baltimore appears particularly vulnerable to bulldozers. Vacant homes are being demolished as never before. The same fate awaits a number of landmarks unless they can be recycled into economically feasible alternative uses.

It is illustrative to consider the latest list of the most endangered city landmarks Brigitte Fessenden compiled for the Baltimore Heritage organization last year.

So far, only two of the 12 landmarks, the USS Constellation and the old Negro Pool in Druid Hill Park, have won a reprieve. All others are still in danger of coming down -- either as a result of a wrecking contract or through ''demolition by neglect.''

But there are dozens of other remarkable buildings not on that list that are endangered.

After decades of false starts and abortive promises, the clock is ticking on the marvelous castle-like American Brewery building in the 1700 block of Gay Street. Meanwhile, the Malachai Mills house, an example of early 19th-century wooden architecture, is slowly rotting away in the 1500 block of West Baltimore Street.

Long-time preservationists are alarmed.

People like Fred Shoken, a past president of Baltimore Heritage, fear that a number of downtown landmarks are now in danger of coming down for no reason other than their owners have grown tired of maintaining them and now prefer an empty lot. Meanwhile, adaptive restoration is so rare ''I'm hard-pressed to think of one significant project that has been completed this year,'' Mr. Shoken said.

Baltimore should better preserve its uniqueness -- particularly in this anniversary year.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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