Historic Brexton building to become condominiums


Architecture Column


Two years after a Washington-based developer bought Baltimore's long-vacant Brexton apartment building with the idea of converting it to a new use, a key city agency has approved plans for its restoration.

Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, a division of the city Planning Department, approved this month a proposal by Park Avenue LLC to convert the six-story building to upscale condominiums.

Designed by Charles Cassell in the Queen Anne style and located at 868 Park Ave., the Brexton is one of the city's most distinctive buildings - triangular in plan, with elaborately decorated windows, intricate roof forms and turrets like those on a castle. It was briefly the childhood home of Wallis Warfield Simpson, who became the Duchess of Windsor.

Annapolis architects Steven Kahle and Charles Roberts developed plans for creating six one-bedroom residences and seven two-bedroom residences within the shell of the building, which dates from 1881.

"This is an unparalled building," city planner Jim Hall told the panel before the final vote. "It is a wonder."

"This is a project that must go forward," said chairwoman Judith Miller. It "takes a ... vacant building and puts it back into use."

For most of the past century, the Brexton was a conventional apartment building. It became rundown starting in the 1960s and has been vacant since 1987.

Since then prospective owners have considered a variety of redevelopment options, including a bed and breakfast operation, artists' housing and a dance club. The primary stockholder of Park Avenue LLC, Stephen Mowbray, bought it in 2003 from a group that acquired it at auction several years before and restored parts of the exterior but never firmed up plans for the interior.

Despite its memorable appearance, the building has proven resistant to redevelopment because it has no parking on the premises. Its interior has been stripped of much of its detail, including fireplace mantels and shutters.

"Because of its richness, intricacy and the small scale of its parts, this building will be very expensive to restore," Hall told the commission. "Yet the number of square feet on each floor is so small that it will be difficult for the building to generate enough income to pay for the operating expenses and mortgage needed to pay for its rescue."

After exploring a number of ideas, Mowbray's group determined that the best use for the Brexton would be condominiums. "It's the thing that comes closest to supporting the cost of the rehab," said project manager John Simpson.

The estimated renovation cost is at least $4 million, and the condominiums are expected to cost $500,000 to $750,000, he added. The target market for the residences is empty nesters and others who "want to return to the city for the social life" it offers.

Simpson said the restoration has been designed to comply with federal and local guidelines, so purchasers may be eligible for tax breaks for historic preservation.

The developers plan to install a new elevator in the original pentagonal elevator shaft, reopen the fireplaces, re-create a missing entrance canopy and save other building elements. They intend to provide off-street parking on land Mowbray owns nearby.

"Our goal was to identify and preserve the most significant architectural features of the building and to take advantage of them in the residences," Kahle said. "It's a very quirky, interesting building. ... We're working with what we have."

During the commission's meeting, part of the presentation focused on the need to construct a stair tower to replace a metal fire escape on one side of the building.

The architects proposed a stair tower that would surround the old elevator shaft and would be constructed partly inside and partly outside an existing exterior wall. They proposed cladding the addition with brick in a color slightly different from the two shades of red brick already on the building, rather than a material not already on the exterior, such as stucco or large sheets of glass.

After a lengthy discussion about the degree to which the addition should blend in with the original building or be differentiated so it's clear that it's a later addition, the panel voted 4-1 to accept the architect's approach. The commissioners asked the designers to meet with city staffers to select the exact combination of brick color and mortar color but said the team did not have to make another presentation to the full commission.

Several panel members praised the architects and developers for finding a clever way to add a stair tower without cutting into the amount of living space in the building.

"I think it's a wonderful project," said panel member Judith Van Dyke. "It's beautiful, really."

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