Preservation of facade divides city Main Street blaze leaves venerable building in ruin

Save or demolish?

Merchants suffering as owner, officials argue structure's fate

December 21, 1997|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

In the aftermath of a fierce blaze that struck the heart of historic Annapolis almost two weeks ago lies a partial shell of a once majestic building now reduced to charred bricks and mortar.

To some, it is simply a pile of fire-damaged rubble.

To others, it represents the livelihood of the building owner and his burned-out tenants. It symbolizes a dismal holiday season for many merchants on upper Main Street, which has been closed to traffic since the fire.

And to preservationists, the 98-year-old building epitomizes all that is charming, quaint and vital to the city's downtown district.

In the middle are city officials, who must decide whether to preserve the remains or allow the owner to demolish the ruins.

On Friday, after a flurry of negotiations, last-minute pleas, an emergency hearing and even a lawsuit, the city decided to save the building's standing facade, despite concerns from several engineers who declared the structure unsafe.

Yesterday, city contractors began shoring up the remains to make it safe for a possible street reopening today. It was a decision that pleased some, angered others and came too late to make a difference, many say.

"If it opens tomorrow, I'll still have lost better than 50 percent of my business because the street was shut down," says Carroll Geldmacher, owner of Parcel Plus, several stores up from the burned building at 184-186 Main St. "This was supposed to be our biggest month in sales. I am all for preservation, but what about the people in the community?"

Save or demolish. The decision would have been simple if it were not a building in the historic district, many said. But what ensued was a vigorous battle over the importance of history. To proud Annapolitans who believe it is the city's lifeblood, history is what draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to Maryland's capital every year.

Annapolis is a town where opinions are strongly held and confrontations are not unusual. Just look at the bitter battle over the design and construction of Main Street in 1995. That fight delayed work, added $279,000 to design costs and forced many shops out of business because construction occurred during the peak tourist season.

"People are wondering why we want to save this facade," said Ann M. Fligsten, president of the Historic Annapolis Foundation. "It is not just a building. It is part of a mosaic of architecture from all periods in the city's history. It is important to the character of our city and to the most important part of the historic district, which is Main Street."

Added Fligsten: "We are not saying save it at any cost. But, we are told it can be saved safely, and that's what should be done."

It was not done easily.

Owner and city disagree

Owner Ronald B. Hollander wanted to raze the building.

City officials Tuesday denied Hollander's request for a permit to demolish after preservationists and others launched an intense lobbying effort to save the structure. The city then issued Hollander a memo demanding that the crumbling facade be stabilized in 72 hours with supports to keep it from tumbling.

Hollander immediately appealed, called the decision "idiotic" and accused city officials of "bowing to the powers of preservationists without any regards to safety."

He said three reputable engineers recommended against saving the building.

City officials offered their own city engineers -- who first recommended demolition and then quickly changed their minds -- and hired another to proclaim the structure was safe to save.

Angry statements were issued by both sides to the media and to the Main Street merchants complaining about the delay. Amicable negotiations began Thursday morning and lasted late with no resolution.

Meanwhile, merchants watched helplessly.

"It has certainly been challenging," said Larry Vincent, owner of Laurance Clothing at the top of Main Street. "To let this street sit empty during the peak of the season was not so smart. Preservation of the community and main- taining a viable center city should be the real interest.

On Friday, a breakthrough seemed imminent. City officials were finally persuaded that the structure should come down, Hollander's lawyers announced. At 1: 30 p.m., one hour before a hearing of the seldom used Building Board of Appeals, city spokesman Thomas W. Roskelly promised that a news release detailing the agreement to raze would be sent soon by fax.

An agreement was drawn up between the city and Hollander, giving him permission to raze on the condition that he take "archival quality photographs"; save bricks, nails and other datable materials; and work with the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) to rebuild the structure in its 1899 design.

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