Group forms to preserve Brexton Apartments Old residential hotel in Mount Vernon is on market for $350,000

March 19, 1998|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

As historic preservationists trekked through the tattered Brexton Apartments and pigeon feathers swirled around their feet, the group heard an impassioned rationale for saving the Victorian residential hotel where Wallis Warfield, later Duchess of Windsor, lived -- however briefly -- during her Baltimore childhood.

"I fell in love with this building one day when I was driving by it," said Roger Wood, 28, of Laurel, a free-lance technical writer.

Wood is forming a group called Brexton Renaissance to devise strategies to save the privately owned, 116-year-old curiosity of building geometry at Park Avenue and Tyson Street.

The last major boarded and vacant building left within the landmark-studded Mount Vernon neighborhood, the Brexton and its design quirks and foibles have stymied developers for nearly a decade. It's for sale, with an asking price of $350,000.

Wood directed a Baltimore Architectural Foundation tour up the circular staircase in the triangular apartment house's round tower. He wandered through room after room of odd dimensions -- rarely a square or rectangular floor plan in sight.

There seemed to be no solid financial geometry in the acute angles, circular edges and rhomboid-shaped chambers.

"The Brexton is not a development project," said Charles Duff, a Bolton Hill developer and the foundation's president. "It's a cause. There's no way anybody can make money on the Brexton in the short run. But Baltimore would be poorer without it."

Others were amazed at the views and light in the smallish, six-story flatiron-style structure, which retains its original woodwork, window openings and turrets. They also saw tons of cast-iron radiators -- few of which matched. Built in 1881 and 1882, the residence once contained 50 rooming units converted into about 20 housekeeping suites in the 1920s.

"It stands there like our little castle, but nobody steps forward to do anything with the Brexton," said Charles Smith, director of field operations for the Mid-Town Benefits District. "I envision it becoming offices or a fabulous apartment house."

Wood, who said he is applying for tax-exempt status, is undaunted by what the experts tell him. "This is a great building," he said.

He estimated that if renovated, the Brexton's idiosyncratic floor plan would mean that rents could be in excess $1,500 a month -- far more than the going rate in the neighborhood.

The Brexton closed as an apartment house in the 1980s. A plan to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast, with a restaurant and bar, failed. The property is owned by a Potomac corporation headed by Larry Teitel. Teitel's real estate broker opened the building for last week's tour.

For its first 45 years, the Brexton functioned as a family hotel -- a place where Baltimoreans lived in the winter, then, come June, vacated their rooms for a summer suburban boarding house.

The Brexton was one of many buildings designed by Baltimore architect Charles Cassell. He also designed the old Stewart's department store and the hotels Stafford and Junker.

"There's a lot of style that goes with that building," said Ted Pearson, whose interior design office is near the Brexton. "The roof, the spires and dormers are what everybody loves."

Others on in the tour laughed when told that bidders had spent more than the Brexton's asking price at a recent auction of the personal possessions of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Local history says Wallis Warfield stayed at the Brexton, but the dates of her residency are undocumented.

The case against the building is overpowering: one staircase; water damage; no parking; a small rusted elevator that probably doesn't meet city code; and steep restoration costs in a historic preservation district.

"And yet, no matter what anybody says, the Brexton is a great little building," said Pearson. "If the numbers don't quite work for a small luxury apartment condo, tearing it down and making a small park there wouldn't do either."

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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