Forsaking old Baltimore

July 13, 2000|By James D. Dilts

FOR A LONG time I was puzzled by the Catch-22 situation that prevails on many of downtown Baltimore's nighttime streets: No one is on the street because people are afraid to be on the street; people are afraid to be on the street because no one is on the street.

This paradox has led to some truly tragic encounters. Eighteen months ago, a young New York dancer was shot and paralyzed, his career ended, while walking from the Lyric Theater to his hotel just off Charles Street at 11:30 p.m. His two assailants stole $20 from his backpack; they were later apprehended but freed after a trial.

And it has produced some unfortunate side-effects.

People think twice about attending cultural events downtown. Indeed, some suburbanites refuse to venture downtown even in the daytime. Those who do attend downtown events at night review in advance where they are going to park, their chances of reaching the location without being accosted and whether their cars will be safe when they return. If they don't feel assured about these things, they won't come.

This, in turn, has inspired developers to build more parking garages, of which Baltimore already has a great many. The theory is that the individual can then go directly from the car to the office, theater, or restaurant without having to be on the street at all. But this approach devotes still more valuable downtown space to parked automobiles and doesn't really solve the problem of dark, deserted, dangerous blocks.

However, I have now seen the light: put people on the streets who are not afraid to be there.

It occurred to me on a recent visit to Ruth's Chris Steak House and the upstairs Havana Club on Water Street, where I had on numerous occasions watched patrons use valet parking to avoid the surrounding area. On this particular evening, Water Street and the nearby block on Baltimore Street -- a sleazy former entertainment district but still a nighttime draw -- were alive with young people, magnetized by the thumping bass and drums, heading for the new clubs on Market Place. Is this the future of downtown Baltimore -- club land?

It works in Philadelphia.

There, if you don't want to disco the night away, you can watch the crowds surge back and forth between the Second Street clubs and Penn's Landing until the early hours from the window of a 1769 house (now a B&B). The house overlooks a small park that depicts the physical layout of the city and tells the story of William Penn. It is at the east end of Independence National Historic Park.

On Sunday mornings, of course, a different crowd -- schoolchildren and tourists -- ventures out to admire Philadelphia's great collection of buildings along Walnut and Chestnut streets.

So clubs and historic buildings can co-exist, at least in Philadelphia. But what if the club is in the historic building? The evidence so far in Baltimore is not encouraging.

The Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation recently approved a plan to convert the former Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Co. Building at Calvert and Redwood streets into a nightclub by cutting two new entrances into the structure (one on the Calvert Street faM-gade, the other on an alley), and festooning the exterior with signs and lights. It is a serious imposition on the architectural integrity of the building.

The 1886 bank is the finest example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture in the city. Although it is by two local designers, Wyatt and Sperry, it bears comparison with similar works by H.H. Richardson and Stanford White. Montgomery Schuyler, the nation's first architecture critic, in an 1891 issue of the Architectural Record, called it "the most admirable of the commercial buildings in Baltimore" and said "the effect is one of classic purity." The architecture essentially consists of the Redwood and Calvert Street facades; therefore, what is proposed is not a minor operation but major surgery.

The building is a Baltimore City landmark designated by CHAP. In deciding whether to approve the alteration of such a landmark, CHAP must consider its "Historic Preservation Guidelines," which state that "existing window and door openings should be retained. Introducing new window and door openings into the principal elevations is discouraged. Such changes destroy the scale and proportion of the building."

The CHAP staff nevertheless recommended approval of the plan and the commission passed it.

Nightclubs have a relatively short shelf life. Who will put the Mercantile Building back together when the crowd moves on? What has been accomplished if in making our streets safer we impoverish our surroundings?

James D. Dilts is co-author of "A Guide to Baltimore Architecture" and director of Jazz in Cool Places, a concert series.

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