City's west side plan endangers key buildings

December 17, 1998|By James D. Dilts

FROM HIS fifth-floor walk-up loft in a handsome historic building in the 300 block of W. Baltimore St., David Scheper has a delightful view of downtown, with the Bromo Seltzer Tower as its centerpiece.

His 1889 building, which once housed part of the city's garment industry, is now home to a variety of artists, who relish its large spaces, which is perfect for creating and displaying art. Mr. Scheper, a 29-year-old ironworker who helped construct the Convention Center's expansion and the Ravens stadium, makes furniture out of scrap metal in his spare time.

These days its artistic residents are a bit puzzled by plans to demolish their building for the creation of an "arts plaza" to

complement the nearby Hippodrome Theater, which is to receive a $50 million renovation as part of the proposed $350 million plan to revitalize the west side of downtown.

This plan, which will dramatically change the character of the area, is the latest outgrowth of a prevalent theory in City Hall and corporate corridors these days: The solution to Baltimore's problems is to knock down the parts of the city that are causing them.

The west side plan calls for widespread demolition in a section lying roughly between the University of Maryland and Charles Center and stretching from Camden Yards to Maryland General Hospital.

The basic idea is to clear away the relatively old, small, underused and deteriorating buildings and replace them with new structures containing housing located over such big retail stores as T. J. Maxx and Filene's Basement. These buildings require a space of 10,000 to 20,000 square feet, two to four times as big as the present buildings.

Council plan

The City Council has introduced legislation to condemn 127 properties in about six square blocks in the center of this district. Two key parcels include the blocks on either side of the former Stewart's department store on Howard Street and the block across from the Hippodrome Theater on Eutaw Street.

Just seven buildings would be spared in this territory, according to M. Jay Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp. They are the Hippodrome and the Equitable Society on Eutaw Street and the two former bank buildings just north of the Hippodrome, and the old Town Theater on Fayette Street, and Stewart's and the former American National Building on Lexington Street.

"There is really an exciting potential for a new neighborhood connecting Charles Center and the University of Maryland," Mr. Brodie said.

The west side plan was sponsored by the Weinberg Foundation, prepared by Design Collective, an urban design consultant; architects and planners, and presented in recent public meetings.

However, there has been little discussion so far, either in the written plan or public meetings, of the buildings that are to be rTC razed for the new development. Many of them have historic, architectural and urban merit.

The building at 322 W. Baltimore St. is the oldest and finest remaining cast-iron front building here. Knocking it down would be singularly thoughtless in the city that was a pioneer of this form of architecture in the 19th century.

Its designer, George H. Johnson, also created the designs for the famous Haughwout Building in New York, a SoHo landmark, and for iron-front buildings made in Baltimore by the renowned Bartlett-Hayward foundry and erected after the Civil War in Richmond, Va., where they have been carefully restored and occupied by prestigious tenants.

The hatter's concerns

Around the corner from that building, in a more modest structure sits owner Lou Boulmetis, who runs Hippodrome Hatters opposite the theater on Eutaw Street. His grandfather started the business in 1930, when he cleaned hats, shined shoes and cuffed pants for the vaudeville trade. Besides cleaning and blocking, Mr. Boulmetis designs custom-made hats.

"We have a connection with the theater," he said. "I don't think they should lay waste to an entire neighborhood to make it work. This is a vibrant, hustling, bustling area. They want to get rid of businesses that are here and bring in businesses that want to be there. They want our seat at the table."

Many preservationists question plans to demolish signature buildings for "big box" retail buildings with little character or appeal.

"The overall strategy is more of a suburban model unlikely to be successful is an urban setting," said Tyler Gearhart, director of Preservation Maryland.

James D. Dilts is co-editor with Catharine Black of "Baltimore's Cast-Iron Buildings and Architectural Ironwork."

Pub Date: 12/17/98

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