City panel backs west-side historic district

Old West Baltimore would be largest, if OK'd

August 12, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Baltimore preservation officials have endorsed the creation of the largest historic district in the city -- an area of about 175 blocks containing almost 6,000 significant properties.

Dubbed Old West Baltimore, the district is made up of five distinct African-American neighborhoods rich with architectural and cultural significance.

The district is one of four that received approval Tuesday night by the city's Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.

The listing, which allows property owners to apply for tax credits for historic renovations, must be approved by the National Park Service, which maintains the register.

The unanimous approval of the commission followed an unusual discussion in which two of its African-American members complained that the written application for Old West Baltimore gave short shrift to many of those who contributed to the significance of Harlem Park, Upton, Sandtown, Druid Heights and Madison Park.

"We applaud the efforts to bring together all the old West Baltimore neighborhoods and to give them national designation," said commission member John Burleigh. "But there is a concern about the description. ... A lot has been omitted."

Burleigh specifically mentioned the lack of mention of large numbers of such black-owned businesses as doctors' offices, grocers and a taxicab company. "We owe it to our black forefathers to make sure that the work they did was not lost," he said.

Commission member Marion Blackwell agreed.

"What we have is a skimming," she said.

After they spoke, the commission agreed to submit an addendum to the application to provide a more complete archival record.

Besides being a point of pride, inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places allows owners who renovate their properties to historic standards to apply for city, state and federal tax credits.

City officials, community leaders and preservationists hope the tax credits will help encourage the revitalization of substandard properties and the maintenance of buildings in good condition.

Unlike the far more rare city historic districts, property owners in national historic districts do not need to get approval in advance for making exterior renovations as long as those changes comply with city building codes.

Along with Old West Baltimore, the commission approved nominations for historic districts for Hampden and Reservoir Hill and for Arcadia-Beverly Hills in Northeast Baltimore.

Also, the commission gave its nod to adding the Baltimore & Ohio Locust Point Grain Elevator Terminal to the National Register. A developer is converting it into a mixed-use development that includes condominiums, office and retail space.

Among the approximately 40 city neighborhoods listed in the National Register are Fells Point, Mayfield and Original Northwood.

`Premier' area

The application for Old West Baltimore, prepared by preservation consultant Fred Shoken, describes the area as "Baltimore's premier early African-American neighborhood."

According to the application, blacks, who had been restricted to alley houses throughout Baltimore in much of the city's early history, began living in houses on the main streets of the area in the 1890s.

Historically significant figures who called the area home included Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, U.S. Rep. Parren J. Mitchell and jazz great Cab Calloway, the application said.

For decades, older slum dwellings in the area have been demolished to make way for new housing, the application says. But thousands of historic structures remain, including traditional and nontraditional rowhouses; churches such as Emmanuel Christian Community Church on Lafayette Square and Berea Temple on Madison Avenue; and Booker T. Washington Middle School, which was built in 1894 and is the city's oldest public school building still operating.

Shoken acknowledged at the commission meeting that the description of the importance of the area was abbreviated but said the application was meant to be a "synopsis" and not a complete history. "What was put forward suffices to designate an area," he said.

Burleigh and Blackwell said more was needed.

"There has been much that's been left out," said Blackwell. "It was a self-sustaining African-American community. It was a microcosm of black America."

Arlene Fisher, president of the Lafayette Square Community Association, said she understood the concerns, but said it was important to her community that the application not be delayed. "We want to use the tax credits," she said.

Still, Fisher raised a concern: Too many communities were being lumped together.

"We wanted to be Historical Harlem Park," she said. "Just because we're all African-American doesn't mean we're all the same."

Get designation

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