Victory (almost) in battle for Lemmon Street

December 09, 1997|By Thomas Ward

OVER THE PAST six months, five alley houses in the historic railroad district of Southwest Baltimore became the object of a tug of war between area residents and City Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III.

The boarded-up and long-vacant houses in the 900 block of Lemmon Street are cater-corner from one of the great landmarks in American history -- the first passenger railroad station, Mount Clare Station, now known as the B & O Railroad Museum.

Many area residents believe saving these houses will also help preserve downtown, including the Inner Harbor. For if all of downtown's nearby neighborhoods deline, downtown will, too.

After five days in court, much wrangling with City Hall and many hours of labor, area residents who fought to preserve the houses are almost ready to declare victory.

Neighborhood improvement

I detail the story here to encourage prospective home buyers to consider locating in areas like the 900 block of Lemmon St., where a thriving, attractive neighborhood is blossoming.

The story begins this past summer when word spread about city plans to demolish the five pre-Civil War structures that had housed Irish immigrant railroad worker families. Immediately, a group of area residents organized to stop the planned demolition.

But Mr. Henson would have no part in this rescue effort. Instead, he signed a demolition order.

Round One took place in August at a two-day trial in Baltimore Circuit Court before Judge Paul Alpert, who heard testimony from both sides that the buildings were historic.

Preservationist Mary Ellen Hayward, said: ''Our research revealed them to be not only important due to their early age and historical connection with the B & O Railroad, but they were also among the oldest remaining alley houses on the East Coast.''

Expert witness

A witness produced by the four city solicitors assigned to the case, Eric Holcomb, a preservation planner with the city's Commission for Architectural and Historic Preservation, testified that the buildings are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and ''unique to the Atlantic region. . . They would be a contributing resource to a historic district.''

Judge Alpert agreed that history was important to some Baltimore residents and signed an order blocking Mr. Henson's demolition plans and ordered the city to grant the volunteer group a building permit.

He gave the group 10 days to stabilize the five houses.

Round Two took place in September after the city refused to grant the permit, despite the fact that the volunteers had met the city's requirements.

It took two more court hearings to pry the permit from the city.

William Adler, a contractor and preservationist, gave a detailed history for the court record of the numerous delays and rude behavior he was subjected to by both low- and high-ranking employees of the city's housing department before he finally got the permit.

To meet the 10-day deadline, four area residents, all skilled tradesmen -- Anthony Caviness, Daniel Whittaker, Mr. Adler and Steven Blake -- took leaves from their jobs to spend hundreds of hours of labor to comply with the 10-day order. And the miracle is that they succeeded in stabilizing the Lemmon Street Five by the deadline.

Despite the court order, however, they were subjected to constant inspection and harassment by city housing inspectors. One even issued a summons to a Lemmon Street neighbor who allowed the workers to store their large, wooden beams in her yard. The summons was for having ''trash'' on her property.

The court order, at the insistence of the city, also contained a 60-day period for the volunteer group to find buyers for the five houses, and an additional 30 days to complete preliminary plans for their restoration.

Considering the fact that city housing inspectors would not allow the volunteers to even enter the houses prior to the order, this was a tough one.

But the beleaguered crew went to work. They decided to try and spruce up the entire block, which contained nine long-vacant, dilapidated houses, one of which is owned by the city, to make it attractive to prospective home buyers.

The volunteers formed a non-profit development corporation, the Railroad Historic District Corp., and helped start a neighborhood improvement association, the Lemmon and Poppleton Streets Historic Association.

The group adopted the idea of using one of the houses as a passive museum with no attendants, where visitors could look through a glass wall to see how an early Irish immigrant family lived during that most difficult time.

And then came the shocker . . . .

Last month, the city told the court that the volunteers were behind schedule and insisted on a court hearing to advance demolition plans.

Good news

Round Three took place on Nov. 20, when Judge Alpert ruled that all the houses must have new owners by Dec. 1 and the architectural renderings showing how the buildings will look once renovated must be completed by Dec. 12.

The volunteers will have good news for Judge Alpert on Friday. There are new owners for all but one of the original five, and settlement is imminent for the fifth one.

Also, the volunteer group has bought two other vacants on the street and plans to renovate them.

All of this was done without any public money.

The group's goal is to make these five houses a valuable living asset for Baltimore City.

Thomas Ward, a retired Baltimore Circuit Court judge and preservationist, has aided the effort to save the Lemmon Street houses. He writes from Bolton Hill.

Pub Date: 12/09/97

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