Fight over Mount Washington's image at a lull But USF&G's neighbors expect battle to resume with company's buyers

January 22, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

For more than three years, the residents of Mount Washington have battled executives of USF&G Corp. over issues of development, expansion and -- in a case where Catholic nuns were evicted from a home they've kept in the neighborhood for nearly 100 years -- common courtesy.

"Companies that once had a personality and people you could know and rely on have become impersonal -- without faces or loyalties or conscience," said Sister Mary Aquin O'Neill, the last Sister of Mercy to live in the order's Provincial House, which became USF&G property in 1982.

"Over the past five years, I've given homilies and sermons to the people at USF&G who tried to change Mount Washington in their own image, and I have not seen it change their corporate character. Early on, we offered to do an ethics course for their employees; they never took us up on it."

While far from finished, the fight over the future of the 68-acre corporate grounds came to an abrupt halt Monday when the large Baltimore insurer was sold to a St. Paul, Minn., company for $3.5 billion.

Association to prepare

Residents who thought the best deal they could get was forcing USF&G to preserve the 130-year-old Provincial House on the former grounds of Mount St. Agnes College will now be dealing with new owners.

Approval of the sale by regulators and shareholders will take six months. Meanwhile, the Mount Washington Improvement Association will prepare for the next round of its preservation fight.

The head of St. Paul Cos. told USF&G employees Tuesday that the Mount Washington property would be used as an East Coast training facility.

"A lot of the development over there -- like the parking garage they promised to clad in brick and then left three sides in concrete -- has been forced on us," said Paul Hanley, who lives across Smith Avenue from the campus.

'Our back yard'

"Our interest is in the residential and historical character of the neighborhood. It's our back yard, and they've wanted to develop it to its maximum value."

At its monthly meeting Tuesday -- the day that the Sisters of Mercy turned in their keys to the Provincial House, ending a rent-free, month-to-month lease with USF&G -- the improvement association voted to retain the services of James T. Woolon Jr., a historic preservationist.

"I'm not familiar with some of the buildings there such as the Childrens Guild, but the Provincial House has always struck me as an important example of the work of a 19th-century Baltimore architect and designer named Thomas C. Kennedy," said Woolon, a Havre de Grace architect.

"A lot of his buildings still stand, like the chapel at McDonogh School and St. Francis Xavier Church in East Baltimore with its enormously high tower."

Growth not wanted

John Mack, an architect and secretary of the Mount Washington Improvement Association, said the neighborhood does not want to see growth unless it's absolutely necessary.

"We're against speculative development," Mack said. "All the issues that have been discussed over the years will be revisited with new players. That goes for development across the campus."

O'Neill, 56, will continue to help operate the Mount St. Agnes Theological Center for Women from a nearby residence on Poplar Hill Road. She said her sadness was mainly for the thousands of USF&G employees who may lose their jobs in the sale.

"When I heard the news, I thought: Mount St. Agnes is still living on, and USF&G is gone. We had to find a new home for the theological center, but we're still in business in Baltimore after 140 years. Nobody bought us, and we have not abandoned the city."

Pub Date: 1/22/98

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