Johnston building might become thing of past

ARCHITECTURE

The neglected structure with a cast-iron front might not be salvaged

April 08, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

One of Baltimore's few remaining cast iron-fronted buildings may soon disappear from the landscape, the victim of years of neglect and changing visions for the west side of downtown.

The Johnston Building, at 26-30 S. Howard St., had been targeted for renovation as part of a $30 million apartment complex proposed for the northwest corner of Lombard and Howard, under plans presented to Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel in 1999.

The work was expected to provide new life and stability for the five-story loft building, which was constructed in 1880 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as an important example of Baltimore's turn of the century architecture.

But the apartment project has not moved ahead, and the Johnston Building's physical condition has deteriorated over the years. Portions of the roof and floors have collapsed, and windows have fallen out. Its condition is so poor that city inspectors have condemned it, a legal action that requires the owner either to stabilize the building or take it down before it collapses, according to Robert M. Aydukovic, director of the Downtown Housing Council.

But because the building is on the National Register, city officials will not press for demolition unless the building is judged to be in imminent danger of collapse, and no one has determined that that is the case, said Aydukovic, whose group works to create new housing downtown.

In addition, the building is privately owned, and the city wants to make sure the owner pays for any demolition costs or compensates the city for the work. Because the building is located along the state's light rail line and above the Howard Street train tunnel, demolition could cost several hundred thousand dollars.

The change in plans is alarming to preservationists, who assumed the building was going to be saved as part of the city's west side redevelopment initiative.

Strong history

"There aren't too many of these left downtown," said James Dilts, the author of Baltimore's Cast Iron Buildings and Architectural Ironwork.

"It's one of a pair of buildings constructed by the same builder, using the same architect and the same foundry," Dilts said. "It's not only the iron storefront that is worth saving, but the entire facade, if the whole building can't be spared."

The lead developer of the residential project, called Market Center West Apartments, is Quadrangle Development Corp. of Washington. It bid for and won the rights to develop a city owned parcel at the corner of Howard and Lombard streets in 1997. Hord Coplan Macht of Baltimore is its architect.

The Johnston Building was constructed by brothers Henry and Josiah Johnston as a warehouse for clothing wholesalers. Henry Johnston was married to Harriet Lane, the niece of President James Buchanan. The building is the twin of the cast iron-fronted Rombro Building next door; the two were constructed within a year of each other. The Rombro Building was renovated for office use in the 1990s by the David and Annie Abrams Realty Corp.

The Johnston Building is owned by the 26/30 South Howard Street Partnership, a group headed by Baltimore businessman Mendel Friedman. The city sold it to Friedman and business partner Morris Wolf for $25,000 in the 1980s. They proposed to fix it up within two years of the sale but never did so. Friedman subsequently joined forces with Quadrangle Development Corp. of Washington to renovate the building as part of Market Center West.

Aydukovic and housing department spokesman John Wesley said the city has taken no steps to force Friedman to respond to the condemnation notice because officials were expecting it to be fixed up as part of the larger apartment project.

Future is unsteady

When the roof of the old Greyhound bus garage collapsed in a snowstorm nearly 10 years ago, then-housing commissioner Daniel Henson decided to invest city funds to repair the roof so the building could be recycled. It now contains galleries of the Maryland Historical Trust.

When a private developer proposed to tear down two turn-of-the-century buildings at Redwood and Light streets to make way for a hotel, the nonprofit Abell Foundation offered to buy the buildings at the last minute so they could be preserved. City officials said Abell made its offer too late and let the buildings come down.

The shell of the Johnston Building could probably still be stabilized and salvaged, if an angel such as the Abell Foundation wanted to invest the funds. But that doesn't seem likely.

Because of concerns about the structural condition of the Johnston Building and other factors, Quadrangle has redesigned its project so it no longer incorporates the historic building but does include the land underneath. The redesigned project would rise 14 stories, contain 221 apartments and 111 parking spaces, and cost $35 million. The old project would have risen 24 stories and contained 301 apartments and 87 parking spaces.

Dilts and others are concerned that the Johnston Building will be razed and that the apartment project still won't move ahead. As long as the building is standing, they say, they are hopeful that it can be saved.

"It can go one way or the other," Dilts said. "It can be stabilized, or it can be left to deteriorate and eventually collapse. It's too good a building to collapse. There's an example of what can be done with it next door."

The Johnston and Rombro buildings are the sorts of structures that Baltimore can't afford to keep losing if it wants to maintain its identity, Dilts added.

"They're like sentinels on Howard Street," he said. "Everybody always talks about how idiosyncratic and quirky Baltimore is, and buildings like this make it that way. As more and more of these buildings are lost, it makes Baltimore less unique."

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