Razing Odorite? Trust says: Not so fast

ARCHITECTURE

UB faulted for failing to explore all options

December 29, 2003|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Weeks after the University of Baltimore announced that it is moving forward with plans to demolish the vacant Odorite building to make way for a student center, Maryland's top preservation officer has ruled that the institution does not have legal authority to do so.

J. Rodney Little, director of the Maryland Historical Trust, sent a 21-page letter to university president Robert Bogomolny warning that "the University cannot lawfully demolish the Odorite Building" because it has not adequately consulted with the Trust or considered "prudent and feasible alternatives."

"We are writing to formally notify you that the Trust has determined that the University has foreclosed the Trust's opportunity to provide meaningful review and input and, in doing so, has failed to meet the requirements of applicable law for this undertaking," Little wrote in a letter dated Nov. 26.

State law requires that the university make a "good faith effort" to "identify and evaluate alternatives" to demolition of buildings considered to have historic significance, but "nearly every action, or lack of action, by the University to date suggests that demolishing the Odorite and constructing a new student center on the site was a foregone conclusion," Little continued. "We are disappointed that a reasonable solution has not been sought or reached."

Little's letter came less than a month after Bogomolny wrote him and issued a news release stating that, after extensive study, the university intends to tear down the Odorite building to make way for a $13.9 million student center, which it has scheduled to open in mid-2005.

That action prompted a local preservation advocacy group, Baltimore Heritage, to sue the university to prevent demolition of the Elizabethan-Tudor style building, constructed in 1915 at the southeast corner of Mount Royal and Maryland avenues. The case is scheduled for a hearing next month in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.

Little's reaction marks the first time in state history that the Maryland Historical Trust has been unable to reach accord with another state agency over the fate of a state-owned building that the Trust deems significant.

Maryland officials long ago established a procedure for resolving preservation-oriented disputes between state agencies, which calls for both sides to present their case to an advisory council of agency chiefs and private citizens. The advisory council, however, has never been convened and one of its members, architectural historian Phoebe Stanton, recently died.

The dispute has been simmering since last spring, when the university unveiled plans to construct a six-level student center in place of the Odorite building, rather than preserve it.

The heart of the issue is a disagreement between the two sides over the extent to which university officials consulted with the Trust and explored ways to preserve the Odorite, which has been vacant on and off for the past decade.

Designed by Wilson Smith and Howard May, two of the architects who designed the Bank of America tower at 10 Light St., the two-story building originally housed the Monumental Motor Car Co. and was one of several auto showrooms along Mount Royal Avenue in the early 20th century.

Characterized by large windows at street level and pro- jecting bays above, it subsequently housed the Odorite Co., a cleaning supplies firm, and was purchased by the state in 1989 for expansion of the University of Baltimore. As recently as the fall of 2002, university leaders said they were open to the idea of saving its Mount Royal and Maryland avenue facades as part of any new development on the property

The building is not listed individually on the National Register of Historic Places or the Maryland Register of Historic Properties, but it is part of the Mount Vernon historic district and has been deemed eligible for those lists, according to the Trust.

Bogomolny could not be reached last week, but he has previously stated that university representatives did consider saving the Odorite building and did meet with community groups as part of the decision-making process.

He has explained that the university eventually concluded it would not be feasible to save the Odorite building because its "footprint" was not large enough to accommodate the student center, and preserving parts of it would add to the project's cost.

The student center would include a bookstore, dining area, offices and meeting rooms for student groups and a 200-seat theater. Bogomolny says UB is the only state-run campus without a student center and that he would prefer to design a building that's tailored to the needs of its students, rather than attempt to recycle the Odorite building.

In his Oct. 30 letter to the state, Bogomolny characterized the Odorite building as an "eyesore" and said it does not pro- ject the image the university wants to convey. He also expressed "significant doubt" that the state's preservation laws apply to its stewardship of the Odorite building.

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