A debate over 3 midtown buildings

Demolition: Early 20th-century buildings in Mount Vernon-Belvedere are at the center of a heritage vs. revitalization question.



April 02, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

To preservationists seeking to protect the historic character of Charles Street in Baltimore, a plan that could lead to the demolition of three turn-of-the-century buildings in midtown would in most cases seem counterproductive.

Especially when community leaders just completed a revitalization plan that encourages preservation of historic buildings throughout the area.

But that's what the Baltimore Development Corp. has proposed in legislation now before the City Council. And surprisingly, the plan has received support from several groups that normally would oppose demolition of older buildings on Charles Street.

Yet there are some opponents.

"I think it would be a dreadful mistake," warns Art Kutcher, an architect who lives on Mount Vernon Place. "Baltimore's Demolition Derby continues. It's insane."

The North Charles Street buildings in question are the former home of Danny's restaurant at 1201; the former Anneslie Apartments at 1203-05 and the building that houses the Thai Landing restaurant at 1207.

All date from the early part of the 20th century and are within the Mount Vernon-Belvedere historic district. They also stand directly across Charles Street from the Queen Anne Belvedere apartments, which will soon reopen after a $6.5 million restoration. The Danny's building and the Anneslie have been vacant for years.

The three buildings may not qualify as individual landmarks, but they anchor one corner of the intersection of Charles and Biddle streets and have an architectural scale and details that could be an asset to midtown if the buildings were fixed up.

The Baltimore Development Corp. is seeking passage of legislation that would authorize it to acquire the three buildings on behalf of the city and then offer them for redevelopment. The legislation does not specifically state that the buildings would be torn down, but that is the likely outcome, city officials acknowledge.

One company that has expressed interest in tearing down the buildings is Aegon USA, an insurance company with headquarters in the former Monumental Life building at 1111 N. Charles St. About 600 employees work there.

Aegon owns the parking lot north of the three buildings, a property that takes up most of the block. Aegon officials have indicated that they would like to build a mixed-use complex in the 1200 block of North Charles Street that would contain street-level shops, parking and offices. Aegon currently leases space at Park and Centre streets for 300 employees and presumably would move those employees to Charles Street if it had offices there.

Aegon consultant James Gentry said the company does not yet have specific plans to share with the community. He said Aegon would like to acquire the buildings at 1201 to 1207 N. Charles St. and combine that land with its parking lot to give it one large development parcel adjacent to and visible from Aegon's current headquarters a block south.

Gentry explained that Aegon already owns the Danny's and Anneslie buildings but has been unable to buy the building containing Thai Landing. He said Aegon is prepared to bid for all three if the city acquired them by eminent domain.

While other developers would be able to bid for the three buildings, they would not be able to assemble a block-long development parcel the way Aegon could because they don't own the parking lot. Thai Landing would be eligible for relocation assistance if the city acquired the building it's in.

Charles Duff, a historian and nonprofit developer who wrote the Midtown Community Plan, said he likes the three buildings, especially Danny's, and believes they could be worth saving. But he said he hasn't seen much community support for saving them.

Kutcher said he believes they are an important part of the city's heritage and ought to be preserved. He said the buildings are representative of a Classical-Revival style of architecture that can't be found farther north on Charles Street, where the buildings are Romanesque-Revival.

"The signs say it's `Historic Charles Street,' " he said. "This makes a mockery of the historic district. Those buildings have beautiful cornices and brickwork and fine details around the windows -- all those things that made classical architecture unique. You won't get that again."

At a recent hearing of the council's Urban and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, Pam Thanaporn, the owner of Thai Landing, said the restaurant has eight years left on its lease and she doesn't want to move.

But the plan received support from representatives of the Historic Charles Street Renaissance Corp. and the Mount Vernon Belvedere Neighborhood Association.

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