Option to raze the Rochambeau rankles some

ARCHITECTURE

October 18, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

For the sake of preserving history, is a property owner ever justified in destroying history?

That question comes up with increasing frequency in preservation circles, as cities evolve and experts struggle to assign value to successive layers of the built environment.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore is the latest local building owner to raise the issue, as it attempts to decide whether to demolish a 98-year-old apartment building as part of a larger effort to restore the nearby Basilica of the Assumption.

The Rochambeau, a seven-story building at 1 W. Franklin St., is the endangered structure. Named after Jean B. de Rochambeau, a French commander whose troops camped on the site during the Revolutionary War, the Renaissance Revival building was designed in 1905 by the noted architect Edward Hughes Glidden and opened a year later. Its fate has become a source of concern to local preservationists, who say it should be saved at all costs.

Former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, the president of Baltimore Heritage, the city's oldest preservation advocacy group, said his organization will convene a summit of federal, state and local experts to explore ways to preserve the building.

"We think it's a great building, and we think it's economically viable" to preserve, he said. "It would be a travesty to tear it down."

"It doesn't make sense to say that the Rochambeau couldn't be successfully rehabilitated, when so many similar Baltimore buildings have been," said John Maclay, a past president of Baltimore Heritage.

Representatives for the archdiocese, which owns the 54-unit apartment building through a subsidiary, said demolishing the building is one of several options under study, and that its leaders are open to suggestions.

As part of the decision-making process, they are meeting with community groups, including Baltimore Heritage, and have asked two respected developers to look at the building and make recommendations.

Leasing is on hold, and the building will be vacant by the end of this month and will remain so until its fate is determined.

The Rochambeau is "somewhat of a discordant element in the vision that we have in our minds" for redeveloping the area around the basilica, said Robert Minutoli, an executive vice president of the Rouse Co. and chairman of the archdiocese's building committee. At this point, "we don't believe it's economically feasible to do anything with it. Between what we have in it and what we would have to put into it, it wouldn't be workable."

At the same time, "we don't have a particular desire to spend a couple million dollars to take the building down, either," Minutoli said. "If there is a way we can keep the building in use for some time, we'll try to make it work."

One West Franklin LLC acquired the Rochambeau in 2001 for $3.5 million in conjunction with the plan to restore and modernize the basilica and improve the area around it.

The basilica will be closed from Nov. 22 to fall 2006 so reconstruction work can proceed there. A separate group, the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust, is guiding that effort.

Besides restoring the basilica, the archdiocese and historical trust are developing a long-range master plan for improving the rest of the area bounded by Cathedral, Mulberry, Charles and Franklin streets. Ideas include a pilgrimage center, a museum of American Catholicism and underground parking for up to 600 cars.

The archdiocese has not released plans for the additions, but planners acknowledge that they most likely would be constructed along the south side of Franklin Street, between Cathedral and Charles streets, in place of the buildings there now.

Besides the Rochambeau, the Franklin Street buildings include several structures occupied by Associated Catholic Charities, including Our Daily Bread soup kitchen. The archdiocese acquired the Rochambeau when it did, Minutoli said, because church leaders wanted control of the entire block.

The archdiocese and the historic trust first publicly discussed the idea of razing the Rochambeau in 2002. At that time, representatives indicated that the apartment house might be torn down to open up views of the basilica from the north. Preservationists complained, and the archdiocese never sought permission to demolish the building. To the contrary, One West Franklin LLC contracted with a local management firm to lease and maintain the building - a sign that demolition wasn't imminent.

The issue came up again this fall because the leasing efforts did not go as smoothly as the owners expected.

According to Minutoli, the building began to appear on the police docket as a site of criminal activity. In addition, the managers failed to pay real estate taxes on time one year, and the building was included in the city's annual tax-lien sale. After that, city inspectors toured the building and ordered improvements to the interior and exterior that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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