New hope for old `gem'

Baltimore seeks grant to save 1870 mansion in Druid Hill Park

Reversal of '97 stance

July 11, 1999|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

After years of neglect, one of Baltimore's largest and most historic vacant houses could be on the road to restoration.

And the nearly 9 acres of parkland that surround the house -- which the city just two years ago wanted to sell as "surplus property" until community outrage forced it to scuttle the plan -- is described by the new parks chief as a "gem" of a site as worthy of preservation as the building.

With little fanfare, the city has applied for a $52,500 state grant to prevent further deterioration of an abandoned 1870 mansion on a triangular parcel on the southwestern edge of Druid Hill Park. The money also would go for a study to find out what it would cost to restore the three-story stone building and convert it for use as park-related offices and educational programs.

The city would kick in $17,500 toward the estimated $70,000 cost of stabilizing what is known as the Auchentoroly Terrace Mansion, which for over a century was the home of the superintendent of Druid Hill Park and later the director of the Baltimore Zoo. It had been abandoned and allowed to fall into disrepair, and a gaping hole in the roof from a 1993 fire has not been fixed.

"The main thing right now is to get in there and make sure the building doesn't fall down," said Michael J. Baker, a 20-year veteran of the Department of Recreation and Parks who became chief of parks in October.

"We decided that the least we owe that building is to have it stabilized, at least until we can quietly determine the best use for the building," he said.

That's a complete turnaround from the position the city took in May 1997.

Then, the city tried to rush through a plan to sell the entire parcel to the United House of Prayer for All People of the Church of the Rock of the Apostolic Faith. The United House of Prayer had plans to raze the mansion and develop the property as a church with two sanctuaries seating a total of 1,100 people, a social hall, a family life center and parking for cars and buses.

Parks officials said then their financially strapped department did not have the money to renovate the mansion or maintain the land around it, a parcel cut off from the rest of Druid Hill Park by heavily traveled Swan Drive near Reisterstown Road and Gwynns Falls Parkway.

In 1996, park officials said, the department spent $24,000 to remove thousands of illegally dumped tires from the property, part of the 674 acres in Druid Hill Park and about 6,500 acres of parkland citywide.

But the city quickly withdrew its proposal to sell the land after an outpouring of opposition by neighborhood residents and citywide civic and conservation groups. At an emotional public hearing, residents and groups lambasted the plan, saying it breached a near-sacred stewardship of open space set aside generations before for parkland.

Now, the city is drawing plaudits for its new focus on restoring the mansion, which is surrounded by a metal fence, and reclaiming the parcel -- half of which is forest, the other half covered with waist-high grasses.

"It's wonderful news," said Jacqueline Carrera, executive director of the nonprofit Parks and People Foundation. "The house itself is something that's an asset, or could be an asset, and should be renovated. And whenever possible, we like to keep parkland as parkland."

State Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, a Democrat whose district includes the communities around the property near Mondawmin Mall and who was a leader in the fight against the land's proposed sale, lauded the grant application as a "positive thing."

"Our major issue was, we should not start a precedent of selling park property," Hughes said. "Anything as long as it belongs to the public and is in line with the wishes of the community I'm sure people will be happy with."

Last week, neighbors were happy to know that someone was thinking about the property.

"It's a nice idea," Martez Countess, 20, said of the city's grant proposal. "I was wondering when they were going to do something with that property."

Crystal McMiller, 35, another neighborhood resident, said fixing up the house and property would help reduce crime. "You have all kinds of people up in those woods," she said. "It's the nighttime when you've got to worry."

If the city's grant application is approved by the state, the mansion stabilization would be just one of a number of recent construction projects undertaken by the parks department, including the Gwynns Falls Greenway, the Patterson Park Bathhouse, and the Druid Hill Park Conservatory.

The projects come as the department is strapped for operating funds and are made possible in part by an increase in money from Maryland's Project Open Space. Project Open Space, which apportions money to local jurisdictions and is paid for by a percentage of the state's property transfer tax, has benefited from a strong real estate market.

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