Design of Main St. facade should become new focus


January 25, 1998|By Brian Sullam

ANNAPOLIS' Main Street looks like a smile with a tooth missing.

The five-alarm fire Dec. 9, which destroyed restaurants, shops and offices at 184-186 Main St., created an unslightly gap in the street-scape of the state capital's main thoroughfare. All that remains is a two-story burned brick facade supported by steel and wooden shoring.

The gap must be filled as quickly as possible. But if initial communications between Ronald B. Hollander, owner of the buildings, and city officials are any indication of what lies ahead, Annapolis may be stuck with this "what, me worry?" smile for some time.

At the root of the problem is what's left of the facade.

Mr. Hollander, one of the city's largest property owners, wanted to demolish it almost as soon as the embers cooled.

Annapolis' powerful preservation community, however, doesn't want the building's front to come down. It wants the facade, built in 1899 but substantially altered in 1965, integrated into any new structure.

Mr. Hollander contends that the 100-year-old original section is too badly damaged to be restored.

On a raw, gray morning, he pulls a bit of mortar from the remains of a partially demolished brick side wall.

"See, this mortar is nothing more than sand," he says, rubbing a pebble-sized piece between his thumb and forefinger. Grains fall to the ground.

"This wall was built the same time as the facade and with the same materials," he says, pointing to the facade 20 yards away. "The condition of the wall up there is just as bad."

The wall moves

To prove that the fire severely damaged the remaining walls, Mr. Hollander pushes on a portion that runs perpendicular to the facade. Though it is three bricks thick, the wall moves.

"This wall will have to come down," he says.

Mr. Hollander contends that every structural engineer with whom he has spoken will back up his claim. He dismisses the preservationists' contentions that the wall is sound enough to save.

Cost is behind his desire to bring down the facade. He is certain that building a new wall from the ground up will require less time.

Costs unknown

If the existing wall must be incorporated into the new building, the cost of restoring it is open-ended. A mason would charge for time and materials. At this point, no one knows how much of the wall would have to be rebuilt or how long it would take.

Because Mr. Hollander will have to pay for the reconstruction out of his pocket -- he acknowledges he underinsured the building -- he wants to limit costs.

The city's Historic Preservation Commission will consider his demolition request at its meeting Tuesday.

The commission must consider two questions: Is this facade historic? And, does it have the structural integrity to be incorporated in a new building?

Mr. Hollander must prove that the facade does not have historic value and is not sound.

The preservation commission is in a tough position. Preservationists don't want to allow the demolition even though the wall has been compromised.

The upper story of the facade dates from 1899. It has a half-dozen gracefully arched windows. Unfortunately, the first-floor windows are squat and clumsy by comparison.

Good windows, bad windows

The irony is that the first-floor windows survived the fire better than the upper-level ones. Perhaps it was because they are only 30 years old. Perhaps it was because of the quality of materials and construction.

These first-floor windows could give Mr. Hollander the opportunity to propose a compromise: Allow him to knock down the top floor, and he would rebuild around the first-floor windows.

The commission, which isn't likely to please anyone, may decide that a Solomon-like splitting of the difference is in order.

This won't be a victory. Preserving the least-attractive feature of these buildings makes a mockery of historic preservation.

Not worth saving

This kind of architecture isn't worth saving, even though it has been a fixture on Main Street for three decades.

At this point, the commission should concentrate on getting Mr. Hollander and his architects to produce an outstanding design for this important parcel.

With its front on Main Street and its rear facing the historic State House, the new building should be as attractive as it can be.

A protracted battle over the fate of the facade may be destructive.

If the Historic Preservation Commission doesn't pay attention to the new building's design, Annapolis runs the risk that Main Street's smile may be permanently damaged.

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

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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