Judge orders halt to razing of old dairy in Fells Point

Hearing due before plans for housing may proceed

May 19, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

As a boy walking to St. Stanislaus School in the 1930s, Jim Malecki knew the best spot for a mid-trek treat. He'd stop by the Wills Dairy in Fells Point for a scoop of ice cream, a rarity in the days when few houses had freezers.

Malecki, 81, is still in the old neighborhood. But all that's left of the dairy is its shell -- a 1920s Art Deco building on Fleet Street and a small adjacent rowhouse. It only bustles when rats and homeless people sneak into the vacant space.

Now the dairy is on the verge of being razed to make way for 11 new townhouses, hardly a rarity in these days of waterfront gentrification.

Malecki isn't sentimental, though. "I think the best way to do it is just tear the thing down," he said yesterday at his Formstone rowhouse.

Tear it down they may -- but not yet.

A Baltimore Circuit Court judge ordered a halt to the dairy's demolition yesterday, four days after it started. Judge Stuart R. Berger ruled that city officials must hold an administrative hearing so preservationists can challenge the razing.

In granting a temporary restraining order, Berger pointed to a section of the city building code that says such hearings "must be held within a reasonable time."

"It's not discretionary, it's mandatory," Berger said. A city lawyer said no hearing had been scheduled because of a staffing shortage but promised one would be held within a week.

Berger's decision puts off for another time the larger question of whether the former dairy will stay or go. And the fate of this one building is wrapped up in an even bigger issue of old vs. new.

Despite the growing popularity of restoring old buildings, and the tax policies to encourage it, preservationists worry whenever one is about to be scrapped.

That's true for the Wills Dairy, which is not especially old for Fells Point and its collection of 18th- and 19th-century buildings. Even its defenders concede it is not the loveliest edifice around, especially with those modern garage doors.

"Would it strike most people as a beautiful building? No," said Ellen von Karajan, executive director of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point Inc.

"But it's idiosyncratic. It's an early-20th-century industrial building that definitely contributes to the historic ambience of Fells Point."

John C. Murphy, lawyer for the society and two area property owners, told Berger the building was deemed a "contributing structure" when the National Register of Historic Places named Fells Point a historic district.

Denise Whitman, another plaintiff, called it emblematic of Baltimore's rich immigrant experience. Julius Wills, it is said, came to the city from Germany in 1897 as a fisherman. Over time he built a thriving dairy business that delivered milk, and jobs, to working-class Fells Point. "This is a tribute to a man's life," Whitman said after the hearing. "This is his immigration story."

She and others want Ruppert Homes or another developer to convert the warehouse -- vacant since a wholesale florist left years ago -- into funky loft apartments, as has happened elsewhere in Fells Point, Canton and Federal Hill.

But lawyer Richard J. Magid, who represents a Ruppert company that bought the site 1 1/2 years ago, said preservation is not an option.

"It's not economically feasible to do it," he told Berger.

Nor, Magid said, should the building be protected merely because it was considered a "contributing structure."

"Every building in Fells Point, they would argue, is a contributing structure," he said, referring to preservationists.

For the Wills Dairy, Berger's emergency order nearly came too late. The roof has been lopped off the oldest part, the rowhouse.

Berger granted permission yesterday for Ruppert Homes to do some additional demolition to stabilize that building.

The city issued Ruppert demolition permits April 16, and opponents filed an appeal with the city the same day. But a hearing was never held. That will occur within a week, said city lawyer Sandra R. Gutman.

Jim Malecki did not know anything was afoot with the dairy until recently. After returning from World War II, he moved onto the same block as the dairy and for years ran the Blue Channel tavern across the street. He has lived on the block for 60 years.

"We still have a good neighborhood," he said. "But it's not like it used to be when you had your own people, your friends. I'm the only one that's left."

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