Archdiocese buys building to expand Basilica grounds

Vintage apartment house might be demolished

October 05, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm and Eric Siegel | Jamie Stiehm and Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

In a move that could change the face of a historic downtown corridor, the Archdiocese of Baltimore has quietly bought a vintage apartment house and has told preservationists that it wants to demolish the building to expand the Basilica of the Assumption's grounds.

An archdiocese spokesman confirmed the $3.5 million purchase of the century-old Rochambeau Apartments, at North Charles and West Franklin streets, but declined to say what the Catholic Church plans to do with the property.

A leading preservationist said Basilica officials told him recently that they would like to clear the land to provide a more inviting view of the religious and architectural landmark - America's first Roman Catholic cathedral - which is scheduled to undergo a major restoration starting in the spring.

"We told them we were opposed to demolition. They countered with sight line and context, giving as justification the historic development of the site," said D. Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland.

The archdiocese purchased the building in July last year under the name One West Franklin LLC. Very few knew of the transaction, and news of it has surprised city officials and others involved in the revitalization of downtown and Charles Street.

Laurie Schwartz, the city's deputy mayor for neighborhood and economic development, said she had known the archdiocese was interested in the property but added, "I hadn't heard they had bought it."

Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, who has been heavily involved in efforts to improve Charles Street, said he, too, had been unaware of the deal. "But I think it's a very positive and very dramatic development," he said.

"I think it's all probably in conjunction with the restoration of the Basilica. It could attract literally thousands of people from across the country who would visit the Basilica in its restored state."

The disclosure of the purchase is the second major development in a month involving Catholic Church property on the square block around the Basilica.

Out Daily Bread moving

Last month, Associated Catholic Charities announced plans to move Our Daily Bread from Cathedral and West Franklin streets to an expanded center for the homeless several blocks away.

The group said it would convert the soup kitchen, which has been criticized for attracting vagrants to the business district, into a center for homeless women and children.

Stephen Kearney, spokesman for the archdiocese, said the purchase of the Rochambeau and the plans for Our Daily Bread are unrelated. He said the apartment building was purchased to "safeguard the block and maintain future options."

The land on which the Rochambeau sits was once owned by the Basilica, which was constructed beginning in 1806 and dedicated 15 years later. The corner lot later fell into private hands and, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, was the site of the residence of Dr. William Osler, a longtime Johns Hopkins University physician.

The Rochambeau was sold two years ago by attorney Albert G. Aaron to Rochambeau Building LLC for $1.35 million, property records show.

In April last year, One West Franklin LLC was formed. The company listed as its principal address the law office of Gallagher, Evelius and Jones, the firm that represents the archdiocese, and listed as its resident agent Robert R. Kern, Jr., an attorney with the firm.

Two months later, One West Franklin LLC bought the Rochambeau for $3.5 million.

Kern said the corporation was created "to separate the liability issues" from the property and the church and to mask the church's identity from the seller.

"If they knew who we were, the price would have been even higher," he said.

Kern said the purchase of the Rochambeau gives the archdiocese control of the entire block - bounded by Franklin, Charles, Cathedral and Mulberry streets - that includes the Basilica, Our Daily Bread and the ground under a parking garage that is leased to the city.

`Lots of options'

"It gives us lots of options," he said, adding that demolition of the apartment building is "a possibility."

The seven-story Rochambeau was built in 1906 in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1904. It was named after the French general whose troops encamped there during the Revolutionary War, according to the city's Commission on Historic and Architectural Preservation.

The commission has chronicled many of the building's historically significant architectural features, including prominent bays and a notably irregular cornice.

The Rochambeau has an estimated 70 apartments and three small businesses on the ground floor along North Charles Street. It is considered a "contributing building" to the historic character of the area known as Cathedral Hill, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Chris Armbruster, who owns one of those businesses, the Musical Exchange, a secondhand record store, said he had an inkling of the Basilica's ownership of the building but had heard nothing directly from his church neighbors.

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