Rochambeau gets key backing

Preservation board opposes Catholic archdiocese's plan to raze apartments

November 13, 2005|By JILL ROSEN | JILL ROSEN,SUN REPORTER

Since the Archdiocese of Baltimore declared its intent last spring to demolish a 100-year-old midtown apartment building to better show off its famed Basilica of the Assumption, local groups have taken sides.

Preservationists rushed to protect the Rochambeau, a seven-story Renaissance Revival structure whose absence, they say, would forever mar one of Baltimore's most historic corridors.

Business and cultural institutions, meanwhile, have lobbied for the church and the mighty tourist draw of its restored basilica, a historical gem in its own right.

The Rochambeau defense got a potentially key endorsement last week from the city's preservation board. Because Baltimore's housing commissioner will decide the building's fate, some consider the backing of a closely aligned agency, the Planning Department's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, a good omen.

"I hope it's a good signal," said Baltimore Heritage Director Johns Hopkins, who's leading the charge to save the building. "I hope ... it's a good sign that both Housing and Planning are taking a real hard look at what's being asked of them."

In May, the church applied for a permit to demolish the Rochambeau to build a prayer garden honoring the late Pope John Paul II.

When the church bought the apartment building at 1 W. Franklin St. in 2002 for $3.5 million, archdiocese officials assured preservationists that it was in no immediate danger.

But they since have revealed plans to raze the entire block - which includes an archdiocese-owned parking garage and buildings housing programs run by Associated Catholic Charities - to build a basilica visitors center.

"We think that our design of a prayer garden, developed by a nationally recognized landscape architect ... will be an enormous outreach of our religious mission and a great benefit and amenity to the entire community," archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine said Friday.

The basilica - formally known as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary - was the first Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States, a structure that the previous pope called a "worldwide symbol of religious freedom."

Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect responsible for the U.S. Capitol, the basilica is ready to celebrate its 200th anniversary and is undergoing a $32 million restoration. Work is scheduled for completion by next November.

By then, the archdiocese wants the Rochambeau gone.

But it's not that simple.

The Rochambeau, named for a French commander who camped on the site during the Revolutionary War, sits on a key corner in the Cathedral Hill historic district.

The neighborhood came alive after the fire of 1904, producing, according to a national register description, "an almost continuous line of stone and brick facades on Charles Street which led to its being described as the `Rue de la Paix' or `Fifth Avenue' of Baltimore."

Because that district enjoys protection under an urban renewal plan that aims to preserve historic structures "wherever possible," the city is waiting out a mandatory 12-month "notification period" before deciding the Rochambeau's future.

The housing department has, however, accepted written appeals on both sides from interested parties and has hired a Pennsylvania real estate strategy company to perform an economic feasibility study on the Rochambeau. The department expects the results in 60 to 90 days.

"We won't be doing anything until the results of that come back," said housing department spokesman David Tillman.

The first step to getting a demolition permit is proving that a building has no income potential. The Rochambeau's 54 units have been vacant for a year.

Though the archdiocese insists the building would lose money as apartments even with extensive renovations, others vehemently disagree. The city's own mission, preservationists argue, involves jumpstarting residential life along Charles Street.

"It seems to me this offers an ideal site for the kind of development we've been talking about," said Judith Van Dyke, of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. "It's a tall building. It will be perfect."

The commission voted unanimously last week to send a letter to the housing department strongly supporting the Rochambeau. In a 1984 survey of Cathedral Hill's historic properties, the commission found the Rochambeau to be "a contributing resource with a high level of integrity and historic or architectural significance." The building earned a historic grade of "B," with the basilica itself one grade higher with an "A."

Planning Director Otis Rolley III said he was trying to find a way to preserve the Rochambeau while getting the church the basilica tourism complex it's seeking.

But organizations including the Downtown Partnership, the Charles Street Development Corp. and the Mount Vernon Cultural District are all pushing for demolition, saying the Rochambeau can't compare in historic significance to the basilica, a true Baltimore attraction.

Other groups agree with Rolley that the church has other options for growth than bringing down a historic building. The Mount Royal Improvement Association, Baltimore Heritage and Preservation Maryland have all written to the housing department, listing their alternative ideas.

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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