Preservationists, Basilica officials to discuss plan for downtown block

Some fear century-old apartments may be razed

October 22, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Preservationists will meet tomorrow with Basilica of the Assumption officials to discuss possible plans for the neighboring Rochambeau Apartments and other buildings on the block sandwiched between Cathedral and Charles streets.

Officials of the Archdiocese of Baltimore recently told preservationists they are considering ways to create a better view of the country's oldest Roman Catholic cathedral, constructed in the early 19th century. One possible approach is to demolish the century-old Rochambeau, quietly purchased last year by the archdiocese for $3.5 million.

D. Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland, organized the meeting. He said that he invited Robert Lancelotta, executive vice president of the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust, to present the archdiocese's comprehensive plans for the city block bounded on the north by Franklin Street and the south by Mulberry Street.

City officials and a representative from the National Trust for Historic Preservation will be among those attending, he said.

"We can learn about their restoration plan," Gearhart said yesterday, "and we can see their motivation to learn our concerns. We wanted to bring together various preservation interests."

Gearhart said this month that he opposed tearing down the seven-story building on Charles Street and displacing scores of apartment dwellers and a few businesses.

An ambitious restoration of the Basilica's interior is due to start in the spring. Diocesan officials say Cardinal William H. Keeler is squarely behind that effort and other possible changes that might go with it, such as redesigning the landscape around the Basilica to resemble a setting more like the original nearly 200 years ago.

If the archdiocese wanted to clear the rest of the block, two other archdiocese-controlled structures could also be at risk: a large parking garage and the building that houses Our Daily Bread, a soup kitchen operated by Associated Catholic Charities.

Stephen Kearney, the archdiocese spokesman, said yesterday that any possible changes to the city block are a long way off. "This is not a tempest in a teapot," Kearney said. "This is a tempest in a teacup."

An official with Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, Eric Holcomb, said early drawings show that the Basilica has always been an "urban cathedral."

"There were rowhouses north and south of it, with a grid pattern," Holcomb said. "It's always been surrounded."

Ken Hart, an architect with Gant Hart Brunnett, whose firm is across the street from the Basilica, said he supported the concept of a visitors center. It's an idea archdiocese officials have floated among the downtown business community.

"The parking structure and Our Daily Bread could certainly go to allow a new visitors center to be on the same [level] as the Basilica on Cathedral Street," Hart said.

But he expressed dismay at the prospect of losing the Rochambeau.

"The Rochambeau is not in the way of developing that site and it is important to the fabric of Charles Street," Hart said.

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