The war over this wall should be ended soon


January 11, 1998|By BRIAN SULLAM

ANNAPOLIS seems to have to gone to war over a charred brick facade.

At least that's the impression I have after being away for two and a half weeks.

Not only did last month's five-alarm fire destroy a restaurant, gourmet food shop and lawyers' offices on Main Street in the state capital, it could severely damage Annapolis' historic preservation process.

In the fire's aftermath, Main Street was closed, putting a damper on shopping at the peak of the holiday buying season. Merchants were hopping mad that the street was closed to cars for more than a week.

The street has reopened, but the conflict still smolders. The question of what to do with the two-story brick facade has created a series of skirmishes that are being fought in the courts, in the streets and city offices.

The main battle is over whether to save the facade of the damaged buildings.

Ronald B. Hollander, the owner, would like to tear it down and begin reconstruction. City engineers deemed the structure unsafe, he pointed out.

The preservationist community, on the other hand, wants to prevent any further destruction of the facade until the city Historic Preservation Commission holds a hearing on the demolition request.

The nonprofit Historic Annapolis Foundation has obtained an injunction that prevents any demolition. Circuit Court James C. Carwood Jr. ruled that unless there the wall starts to fall and endangers the public, the commission has jurisdiction to decide the fate of the structure.

City Hall of two minds

The city government seems to be of two minds. Immediately after the fire, Annapolis public works officials said the remains could be demolished. The city drafted an agreement that Mr. Hollander said he was prepared to sign.

After word spread of the agreement, preservationists employed a full-court press on the new mayor, Dean L. Johnson, to rescind the agreement. He did so.

In the meantime, the city shored up the facade at an estimated cost of $30,000, generating another battle.

The city wants Mr. Hollander to pay for bracing. But Mr. Hollander says he doesn't see why he should pay to brace a wall that he believes will ultimately be razed.

Mortar turned to sand

"This property sustained significant fire damage," he said. "This wall was exposed to a gas-fed high-temperature and doused with several million gallons of water for more than six hours. In some places, the mortar has turned to sand."

Ann M. Fligsten, president of the Historic Annapolis Foundation, is just as convinced that the wall has sufficient structural integrity to remain standing and be part of any rebuilding.

"Engineers familiar with preservation tell me that the wall is in good shape," she said last week.

Both those responses were predictable.

As the building's owner, Mr. Hollander is concerned about lengthy delays. Every month that it takes to sort out this matter means another month he is not receiving revenue from his property.

Ms. Fligsten's mission is to preserve buildings in the historic district. Tearing down a charred wall compromises the streetscape, and increases the possibility that future property owners might destroy their buildings after other mishaps.

The debate over the wall's future could go on for years, particularly if the parties want to fight it out in the courts.

Not historically significant

Nobody should be deluded that this wall is of important historical significance. They were functional stores and apartments behind inoffensive-looking facade.

The only part of the wall that is truly historic is the second story, which contains the arched windows. The first story front was remodeled in 1965 into a series of large arched storefront windows.

However, there is strong sentiment to preserve the facade on the heart of Main Street. The question that needs to be answered immediately is what shape the wall is really in. If it needs repairs that far exceed the cost of building a new wall, razing it makes sense.

The Historic Preservation Commission has to make this a choice. Preservationists will not be happy if the wall is torn down. Mr. Hollander is likely to be outraged if he has to rebuild around a wall he believes should be leveled.

Mayor Johnson should encourage Mr. Hollander to submit his demolition request as soon as possible, and the commission should schedule an expedited hearing.

The quicker the gap in Annapolis' historic district is restored, the better it will be for everyone.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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