Work starts on Brexton building


Duchess of Windsor once called it home

August 26, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

One of Baltimore's faded architectural gems, the historic Brexton apartment building in Mount Vernon, is finally getting a much-needed facelift.

Nearly three years after buying the vacant Victorian landmark at auction for $112,000, Zumot Real Estate Management of McLean, Va., has begun restoring its exterior at an estimated cost of $500,000.

But a complete rehabilitation plan still has not been finalized for the six-story building, which dates from 1891 and was briefly the childhood home of Wallis Warfield Simpson, who became the Duchess of Windsor.

An earlier plan - to convert the building to an extended-stay hotel for travelers from overseas - fell through after the terrorist attacks Sept. 11.

"All six stories will be rehabbed, but how we end up doing that is not clear yet," said Zumot vice president Bill Carr. In the meantime, "we're moving ahead with weatherizing the building. We'd like to get it weather-tight by winter."

Designed by Charles E. Cassell, the architect of the old Stewart's department store on Howard Street and the former Stafford and Junker hotels, the Brexton opened as a residential hotel and later was converted to 25 apartments.

A favorite of local architecture buffs because of its distinctive turrets, spires and dormers, the Brexton has been vacant since the late 1980s. It's the last major structure in the Mount Vernon historic district to sit boarded up.

Before Zumot bought it, the building at 868 Park Ave. was controlled by a succession of owners who failed to restore it. While it sat vacant, the building has been partly exposed to the elements. Preservationists have expressed concern that the building couldn't last another winter without roof repairs.

Contractors recently erected scaffolding around the building and will be repairing the roof, brickwork, windows and gutters over the next six months. Zumot's goal is to complete the repairs without significantly altering the Brexton's appearance, Carr said. "We're going to do everything we can not to change the look of the builiding."

Schamu Machowski Greco Architects Inc. of Baltimore, a firm with extensive experience in restoring older buildings, is the architect.

Zumot had been working with foreign investors who were interested in creating luxury suites for families of patients receiving treatment at Hopkins, but the investors backed out after Sept. 11, Carr said.

The owners have since been exploring options for residential development, but the building's size and triangular footprint make it a challenge.

Carr said the Brexton doesn't have many original features to work with inside, because elements such as fireplace mantels have been removed over the years.

Several redevelopment projects have been completed near the Brexton in recent months, including new headquarters for The Catholic Review at 878 Park Ave., and Symphony Center, an office and parking complex near the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Although Zumot is prepared to proceed with its own renovation of the Brexton, the company would entertain the idea of selling the building to another party. Carr said the building is not listed with a broker, but the asking price is $535,000 plus whatever costs Zumot incurs to complete the work now under way, such as scaffold rental.

In the meantime, the exterior work will put the building in much better shape than it was before - and therefore make it less vulnerable to the wrecking ball.

Since the building is in a historic district, Baltimore's Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation has been monitoring the work closely and has issued a permit for the roof repairs. Representatives are still waiting for more detailed information about the rest of the work, such as the window repairs, to make sure it complies with commission guidelines.

"It's on the front burner here," said preservation planner Brigitte Fessenden. "Everyone is watching this building like a hawk."

Landscape architects

Catherine Mahan, founder and principal of Mahan Rykiel Associates in Baltimore, and John C. Hall, a founder of Land Design Research in Columbia - now known as LDR International, an HNTB Company - have been elected to the prestigious Council of Fellows for the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Nationally, about 25 to 30 people are chosen each year for this honor. The induction ceremony will take place at the landscape architects' national convention in San Jose, Calif. on October 20.

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