City pulls plug on Clifton Park Valve House rehab

November 16, 2005|By SARAH ABRUZZESE | SARAH ABRUZZESE,SUN REPORTER

The Clifton Park Valve House is a wreck, slowly decaying as time passes. Surrounded by chain-link fence, its stained-glass windows are shattered, and the sky is clearly visible through missing roof tiles.

Developer Charles T. Jeffries wants to restore the rare 1888 octagonal structure and transform it into offices.

But his dream seems unlikely to become reality. After years of delay and wrangling, city officials have had enough of Jeffries and his Center Development Corp.

He missed the contractual deadline to begin construction, so the city has terminated his 50-year lease on the property in Northeast Baltimore's Clifton Park.

"We made the judgment not to proceed with him," said City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler.

City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, chairwoman of the city space committee that prepared the lease, which was approved in 2002, said Jeffries "wanted additional time," and officials were not willing to let him continue.

"We were hoping he would come back with a viable proposal that would be acceptable to the city. That is why we gave him three years," Pratt said. "We thought it was sufficient time to do a study, get your financing and get proper zoning approval from the city."

Also called the Lake Clifton Gatehouse, its original function was to transfer water from one source to another. It has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1971, and is an example of Gothic Revival architecture.

The valve house sits in the park, which is the site of philanthropist Johns Hopkins' former residence, and it is adjacent to a former reservoir. The reservoir has been filled in, replaced by the former Lake Clifton High School building.

Jeffries blames the delays on zoning confusion with the city - problems with the lease and the Department of Recreation and Parks, which owns the park.

For the past year, Jeffries has been fighting a losing battle to get the city to sign an amendment that he thinks would resolve the problem.

But Pratt says Jeffries wanted the city to relinquish too much oversight. "He wanted the city just to turn the property over to him and he would decide what he wanted to do with it, and that we could not do," Pratt said.

Rehab plan

Since taking on the project in 2002, Jeffries had created a comprehensive plan that included rebuilding the roof by replacing all the tiles with at least four kinds of custom-made tiles. Stonework would be repointed - eliminating the large gaps between the stones - and new windows would be installed, re-creating original stained glass.

With the approval of the National Park Service and Maryland Historical Trust, Jeffries secured $6.5 million in historic tax credits - $3 million from the state and $3.5 million from the federal level - as well as the promise of additional financing from banks.

Jeffries acknowledges that he has had financial problems. He has had several judgments and liens against him, according to court records, as well as nine lawsuits. But he said the team he assembled has a proven record.

Henry H. Lewis Contractors, which has done work on Baltimore historic properties and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello home, has signed on to do the restoration work. "I think it is a very important structure for the city of Baltimore. It is a shame not to restore it," said Henry H. Lewis. "It is a complete eyesore in its present condition."

Phil Worrall, the architect who worked on the restoration plan, called on the city to let Jeffries continue. "It seems to me they should just extend the lease. Nobody else is going to do anything with this building other than Charles. Either that or just let the whole thing rot, which is just stupid," he said. "It is a magnificent structure, in reasonably repairable shape."

Endangered `relic'

The building has been on the nonprofit Baltimore Heritage Inc.'s list of endangered buildings for the past 30 years.

The Maryland Historical Trust describes the gatehouse as "one of the few remaining relics of an era when men of imagination ventured to create a temple to fill a mundane need."

"It is an unbelievable building, and it is in obvious need of serious attention quickly," said Johns Hopkins, Baltimore Heritage's executive director and a distant relative of the man whose estate was once on the site.

With the ending of Jeffries' agreement, city officials say they have no immediate plans for what to do with the building. Pratt said the Department of Public Works is maintaining the structure.

sarah.abruzzese@baltsun.com

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