Plan rises from city rubble

After structure's demolition, preservationist hopes to form group to buy sites

September 16, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

One of Baltimore's few remaining buildings with cast iron on its facade is now a pile of bricks, and a preservationist says he hopes to form a group that could buy other vulnerable structures before they meet the same fate.

The 122-year-old Johnston Building came down this month on South Howard Street, the victim of a slow and unchecked deterioration. In its place, a 221-unit apartment building called Market Center West Apartments is supposed to rise.

"The building is gone - it's too bad," said James Dilts, author of Baltimore's Cast Iron Buildings and Architectural Ironwork.

"If you can have something come out of this experience, so the next building in a similar situation has a different outcome, I'd rather concentrate on that."

Dilts has begun plotting the formation of an organization that, with funding from foundations and individuals, could step in to save part of Baltimore's architectural legacy. The city has "a couple dozen" cast iron-fronted buildings left, he said, and many other gems that could be at risk.

While Dilts and other preservationists had been dreading the Johnston Building's loss, officials working with the city say the five-story structure made mostly of brick had fallen apart so it had to be razed. Dilts said he did not dispute the assessment.

The building was once intended to become part of the Market Center West Apartments. Under a plan proposed in 1997, a new apartment building would have been built at the site of a parking lot next door at Howard and Lombard streets, and tied into the Johnston Building, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

However, that initial plan has never come close to being realized and over the past five years, the Johnston Building's condition worsened.

"After five years, a few tropical storms, a few blizzards and whatnot, the building had deteriorated to the point where something needed to happen," said Robert M. Aydukovic, director of the Downtown Housing Initiative. "Unfortunately it came down to demolition."

Aydukovic's group is a subsidiary of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore and has been advising the mayor and City Council on the project.

The apartment project may be moving ahead at last with some changes. Based on his conversations with Quadrangle Development Corp. of Washington, Aydukovic said construction on a 14-story building with a parking garage and ground-floor retail could start within six months. The building would rise on the parking lot and cleared Johnston Building site.

The project has received approval from the city's Design Advisory Panel, Aydukovic said, and the developer is seeking a property tax break called a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes.

Christian Chambers, the Quadrangle official in charge of the project, could not be reached for comment.

The Johnston Building was owned by a partnership that was formed by Quadrangle and a prior owner, Baltimore businessman Mendel Friedman.

Built in 1880 by brothers Henry and Josiah Johnston, the building was a warehouse for clothing wholesalers at 26-30 S. Howard. Its twin, the cast iron-fronted Rombro Building, still stands next door and was renovated for offices.

The city sold the Johnston Building to Friedman and business partner Morris Wolf for $25,000 in the 1980s. They had proposed to fix it up within two years but never did. Friedman later teamed with Quadrangle to renovate the building as part of Market Center West, but in recent years, the Johnston Building slipped into a sorry state.

Portions of the roof and floors collapsed, and windows fell out. City inspectors condemned it. Yet even boarded up, it retained a dignity with its gracefully arched windows and pointed roofline.

The Quadrangle-Friedman partnership paid about $100,000 to take down the building, Aydukovic said. Parts of it were dismantled by hand to prevent damage to light rail tracks on Howard.

Dilts said: "There is a lesson here - that citizens have to begin to intervene in this process in Baltimore as they do in some other cities." For example, the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation has worked to save buildings there.

Dilts said organizations such as Preservation Maryland cannot afford to buy buildings. And past white-knight attempts came too late. For instance, the Abell Foundation made an eleventh-hour bid in 2000 to buy an 84-year-old building later razed at Redwood and Light streets.

Dilts has spoken to John Maclay, president of Baltimore Heritage Inc., a citywide preservation advocacy group.

"It's pretty clear, whether it's the park system or downtown buildings, the city is overwhelmed and underfunded," Dilts said. "It can't do the job, so citizens have to take that up."

Otherwise, he fears more treasures will go, as have several cast iron-fronted buildings in the past two decades. One on West Baltimore Street housed a cigar factory owned by H.L. Mencken's uncle. There, Mencken watched a parade that he later described in his memoirs.

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