Brexton building saved from ruins


`Preservationist at heart' has several ideas for its use

December 08, 2003|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Baltimore's historic Brexton apartment building has a new savior.

Stephen Mowbray, a Baltimore native who has found success as a residential developer in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, has turned his attention to restoring the Brexton, which he acquired last month.

The six-story Victorian-style landmark at 868 Park Ave. dates from 1891 and was briefly the childhood home of Wallis Warfield Simpson, who became the Duchess of Windsor.

Designed by Charles E. Cassell, 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, but has been vacant since the late 1980s.

Though one of the most distinctive buildings in the Mount Vernon historic district, with its turrets and dormers, it has proven resistant to redevelopment - due largely to lack of parking on the premises. The interior has been stripped of most of its detail, including fireplace mantels and shutters.

"It's in the right hands," Mowbray said. "I'm a preservationist at heart. I've been interested in this property for years."

The seller was a Virginia group that bought the building at auction for $112,000 in 1999 and began restoring the exterior in 2002. That company, Zumot Real Estate Management of McLean, Va., never firmed up plans for the interior.

Mowbray said he wrote to Zumot and expressed interest in buying the building upon completion of the exterior work, including roof repairs and new windows. He said he's trying to decide whether to rehabilitate the interior for use as a 22-to 24-room hotel, luxury condominiums or apartments. Whatever it becomes, the building will be required by city zoning laws to have parking nearby for occupants of the building.

Mowbray said he has been in contact with Baltimore's department of housing and community development to see if the city has land nearby. "I'm going to need help from the city," he said. "You have to have parking if you're going to have anything there."

Schamu Machowski Greco Inc. has been the architect for the restoration so far.

Mowbray declined to reveal the sale price for the Brexton, which changed hands Nov. 10. The price cannot be found in public records because Mowbray bought the legal partnership that Zumot set up to control the building, Park Avenue LLC. Mowbray said he expects the rehabilitation to cost several million dollars.

Paul Warren, head of the development committee of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Improvement Association, said the Brexton is the latest of several buildings that Mowbray has acquired in Baltimore's midtown area, including a house on Tyson Street and a townhouse at 836 Park Ave. "He's definitely in an acquisition mode."

Warren said Mowbray has been proactive in meeting with the community to share his plans for converting 836 Park Ave. into four luxury condominiums, with Schamu Machowski Greco as the architect. He said the community association will do what it can to assist Mowbray in finding parking for the Brexton. "We're very motivated to try to help him," Warren said.

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