Rochambeau's fate

November 29, 2005

Cardinal William H. Keeler has a vision for restoring the architectural significance of the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and enhancing its religious prominence. That vision extends beyond the present $32 million restoration and modernization project to redeveloping the entire Baltimore block on which the historic 19th century church sits. It's a plan that excludes preserving the Rochambeau, a century-old former apartment building - and that may be its flaw.

The Catholic archdiocese is awaiting a decision from the city on its request to demolish the Rochambeau. And while the Basilica, perhaps Benjamin Henry Latrobe's finest work, carries greater historic and architectural significance than its seven-story Renaissance Revival neighbor, there is something troubling about tearing down one historic property to enhance another.

However, Cardinal Keeler has made the restoration of the Basilica the cornerstone of a 200th anniversary celebration in November 2006, and the archdiocese wants to raze the Rochambeau and build a prayer garden in its place in time for the fete.

Indeed, the law may be on the archdiocese's side to do what it wants with the Rochambeau, even if City Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano rejects the demolition request. The archdiocese bought the haggard Rochambeau for $3.5 million in 2002 and argues that it would be too costly to renovate the cramped space into a viable apartment building. It previously won a legal battle to use church-owned property as it sees fit to enhance its religious mission.

Demolishing the Rochambeau would be an expedient way to gussy up that corner in time for the anniversary party and bring the archdiocese one step closer to its overall vision. But the redevelopment plan can't proceed in its entirety until the city finishes paying off its debt on a parking garage located there, a 16-year obligation. So why rush to condemn the vacant Rochambeau? Some preservationists have proposed renovating it into a pilgrim's hostel, which could accommodate the new tourists expected to visit the restored Basilica.

A city evaluation of the building should determine its development potential, or whether its revival turns solely on a preservationist's prayer.

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