Annapolis' wall should have fallen months ago


August 23, 1998|By Brian Sullam

LIKE THE president's admission of a sexual affair, the recent razing of a burned facade in the heart of Annapolis' historic district was inevitable -- and about seven months too late.

Weeks after the Dec. 9, 1997 fire that destroyed 184-186 Main St., three experts with impeccable engineering credentials pronounced the building's charred facade unsalvageable. They predicted it would have to be taken down.

Their dispassionate, expert assessments were dismissed out of hand, however. Because that happened, the city of Annapolis looks very foolish today.

Sentiment over reason

Just about every action taken since that fire -- from investing tens of thousands of dollars to shore up the facade to closing Main Street during the height of the Christmas shopping season -- was based on sentiment in a city that has grown to love its buildings, rather than on clear, reasoned thought.

It was a tragedy that a fire consumed the red brick structure that Leon Gottlieb built in 1899 to house the state capital's first department store. The building was an integral part of the north side of Main Street for nearly a century.

The loss of such a building hits Annapolitans in the gut, particularly those who have been fighting for years to preserve such structures. It is understandable that the preservation community sought to salvage whatever possible after the fire.

But that protective instinct must always be balanced with a clear assessment of what is realistically possible.

The intense fire and 2 million gallons of water used to extinguish it took their toll on the structure and its facade. The most historic section was no longer intact. About three feet of the top had been sheared off by streams of water or by crews that immediately removed loose and dangerous bricks.

Owner Ronald B. Hollander wanted to knock the whole thing down, saying the cost of restoring it was unjustifiable.

Role of the villain

Never known for his attention to historic preservation, Mr. Hollander conveniently filled the role of insensitive landlord, oblivious to the historic significance of his property.

What should have been a rational discussion about the costs and benefits of salvaging the wall became a symbolic battle over the future of historic preservation.

Within hours of the fire, Mr. Hollander sought to begin demolition. His haste alarmed preservation supporters.

They wanted the decision to "go through the process," fearing that Mr. Hollander might form precedents that others might exploit in the future.

In the meantime, the city ordered the owner to shore up the building and make it safe. When Mr. Hollander took no action, the city erected steel supports and sent him the $40,000 bill.

Mr. Hollander appeared before the city's Historic Preservation Commission to obtain a demolition permit. Unfortunately, the commission failed to take evidence about the wall's poor condition as seriously as it should have.

To bolster his case, Mr. Hollander retained MacDonald Masonry Consultants, an Alexandria, Va. company, to analyze the wall.

Hugh C. MacDonald, the firm's principal, subjected some of the bricks to stress tests in a laboratory. Their strength was severely compromised, he said.

'Nothing you can do'

"Nothing you can do will increase the brick strength, so the only alternative I can see is to tear down the existing wall and rebuild the entire building," Mr. MacDonald wrote.

Mr. Hollander also submitted concurring reports from two engineers. "It is my recommendation that the remainder of the structure be demolished and replaced with a new structure equal or better than the existing one," wrote Howard J. Rosenberg, of GMR, an architectural and engineering firm also in Virginia.

Dueling experts

The Historic Annapolis Foundation offered its own expert. He examined the wall and concluded that it was sound, but conducted no stress test.

Perhaps because Mr. Hollander had hired Mr. MacDonald and the two engineers, the commission dismissed the findings as biased.

In retrospect, the owner was right. If there is a similar instance again, and let us hope there isn't, the historic commission must give more serious consideration to evidence offered by competent experts.

Reality is sometimes unpleasant, but credible public policy can't be based on wishful thinking.

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

Pub Date: 8/23/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.