Building's exterior a history-maker

An 1869 facade brings unprecedented landmark status to a South Front Street structure completed in 1996.

Architecture

April 22, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Can a building completed in 1996 be a city landmark? It can if its exterior bears the reconstructed cast-iron facade from the old G. Fava Fruit Co.

Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation voted this month to bestow landmark status on the Fava building and several other structures at 33 S. Front St., near the historic Carroll Mansion.

The vote marks the first time that the preservation commission has agreed to add such a recently finished building to its landmark list, and it provides a measure of protection for the exterior by requiring that any plans for alterations be reviewed and approved by the city panel.

The focus of attention now shifts to plans for the interior of the building -- and the rest of the former Baltimore City Life Museums complex, including the Carroll Mansion -- as the administration of Mayor Martin O'Malley prepares to turn it over to a private developer.

An ingenious re-use

The $8.4 million Fava building, originally known as the Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center, is a four-story museum addition that was constructed to showcase 200 years of Baltimore history. It was the city's gift to itself for the bicentennial in 1997.

One key to the landmark designation is the facade, which dates from 1869 and was moved in 1976, when the building to which it was attached was demolished to make way for the Baltimore Convention Center. It was placed in storage for more than a decade and re-erected as the frontispiece for the exhibition center.

Instead of building the five-bay facade exactly as it stood at the northwest corner of Charles and Camden streets, however, the design firm of Warren Peterson and Charles Brickbauer folded it like an accordion to fit better onto the Front Street site, and constructed exhibit galleries behind it. It was an ingenious way to save a piece of Baltimore history while adapting it for a new use.

When the City Life Museums closed due to financial difficulties in June 1997, the building was closed as well. It was declared surplus property by the city and put up for sale or lease along with the rest of the City Life complex in East Baltimore.

Public officials originally planned to sell the Carroll Mansion at 800 E. Lombard St. and the Shot Tower at 801 E. Fayette St. but later said they would only lease them, after local preservationists and others argued that the city shouldn't sell its historic treasures. The housing department offered to sell the Exhibition Center, 1840 House, Administration Building, Center for Urban Archaeology and several other properties in the block bounded by Front, Lombard, Albemarle and Plowman streets.

(The Blaustein family, which helped fund construction of the exhibition center, subsequently asked that its name be taken off it because relatives didn't want Morton Blaustein's name continually used referring to the building "in the context of failure," according to Betsy Ringel, executive director of the Blaustein Philanthropic Group. That's why it's now called, simply, the Fava building.)

The 1828 Shot Tower and the 1821 Carroll Mansion, former home of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, longest-lived signer of the Declaration of Independence, have been city landmarks for decades. Any proposed changes to them already were subject to design review.

CHAP's decision to extend landmark status to the Fava building, the 1840 House and the other City Life properties means that any exterior changes proposed for them also would have to be approved by CHAP, giving the agency more control over what happens to the area. The designation, which still must be approved by City Council and the Planning Commission, also means that any developer who acquires them would be eligible for local tax credits for historic preservation, assuming the work complies with city regulations.

Designation of the Fava building was justified, members say, because the panel has authority to confer landmark status on buildings or fragments of buildings, such as a facade, and the Fava front was considered significant in itself. Designation of the other buildings was seen as a way to protect the integrity and historic ambience of the Carroll Mansion and its environs.

"This is unusual," said Kathleen Kotarba, executive director of CHAP. "It's as if we have a very small historic district at one address. ... We want to preserve the setting of the Carroll Mansion so whatever happens in the future will be compatible" with it in terms of design.

Bed and breakfast

The group selected to redevelop the City Life property is the 1840s Corp., a private entity headed by Anne Pomykala, who runs the Gramercy Mansion bed and breakfast operation in Baltimore County. Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke chose its proposal in September 1999 over three others from groups that wanted to redevelop all or part of the City Life campus.

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