Let Constellation be an example

Rebuilding: Why demolish buildings on downtown's west side when they could be lovingly restored, like the historic ship?

July 03, 1999|By Jacques Kelly

THE MAJESTIC RETURN of the Constellation to Pratt and Light streets yesterday was a glorious sight. Isn't she the symbol of the way Baltimore has rebuilt itself in the past 45 years?

I can't help thinking about our history over this Independence Day weekend. Standing on Federal Hill yesterday morning, I gazed down on a transformed city so physically different from the place I knew as a child.

But even in 1950s Baltimore, the Constellation, battered and inaccurately restored, was an object of admiration, aspiration and hope.

We did it.

From the perspective of Federal Hill, two days before July 4, I also thought about some other issues of history that face Baltimore.

Only recently did Mayor Kurt Schmoke say "no" to a hotel builder's plan to put up a tower that would climb higher than the Federal Hill plateau. What a wise decision.

Federal Hill, named for Maryland's ratification of the federal Constitution, is one of those amazing accidents of geography and history. It stands as a green monument that needs to be left alone, not shrouded by a hotel tower.

Over the years Baltimore has made high-rise blunders -- some we're correcting, others will be with us for a long, long time. The Murphy Homes towers will be blown up today. The Sutton Place apartments, facing Howard Street at Park Avenue, are all wrong for a 19th century neighborhood. HarborView, at the eastern foot of Federal Hill, is twice as high as it should be.

On this weekend steeped in history, I'm also reminded of some other challenges for an aged city. The entire west side of downtown along Howard and Fayette streets, is much threatened. Saving a few landmarks here and there is not real preservation.

Hundreds -- some say thousands -- of city rowhouses also are now threatened with being torn down.

It's a shocking experience to travel along West Lafayette Avenue this summer. If you begin in Bolton Hill, you'll see a beautiful, normal 19th century neighborhood. But as you go west and cross Pennsylvania Avenue, the housing blocks are checkerboards of vacant space -- obvious tear-downs, holes in the landscape.

On some blocks, there are maybe three or four houses standing where a whole row once stood.

This concerted demolition makes for a certain neatness -- old vacant houses are depressing and not pretty. But is demolition the answer?

The rebuilding of the Constellation took a long time, and it wasn't cheap. The result was worth the investment. Why not the same approach for Howard Street and all those rowhouses?

Pub Date: 7/03/99

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