Developer renovates around the vulture

March 18, 2006|By EDWARD GUNTS | EDWARD GUNTS,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Though best-known for its Orioles and Ravens, Baltimore is apparently a pretty good place to raise baby vultures, to the chagrin of a renovation team at a local mansion.

For the second year in a row, a black vulture, one of a migratory species protected by law, has laid her eggs inside the Ruscombe Mansion, a vacant, 1860s-era dwelling targeted for renovation near the Coldspring New Town community.

So final repairs to the place - at least the part occupied by the bird - will have to wait for nature to take its course.

"She's up in the attic," said developer Marty Azola of Azola & Associates, who intends to wait until the eggs hatch and the young birds can fly before he moves ahead with the renovations of that part of the mansion, at 4901 Springarden Drive. "We call it the Vulture's Suite."

Last summer, after the mother and her one surviving chick had flown the coop, Azola boarded up windows to discourage her return. But she clearly found her way back in and laid her eggs in the same spot as before - on a flat surface, with no nest.

For now, Azola has cracked open a door to an upper balcony so the vulture can come and go without disturbing renovations elsewhere in the building. "I guess we now have to wait until August to get into that room in the attic," he said. "We can work around her."

Azola, whose firm specializes in historic preservation, said he and his son were surprised by the bird when they entered the mansion more than a year ago.

"It's big," he said. "Its wingspan is five, six feet. It stands two to three feet tall. She came after my son with a vengeance."

Azola has bumped into all kinds of creatures - bats, dogs, snakes, rats, mice and roaches - while renovating buildings, he said, but this is his first vulture.

Azola said he identified the bird's species with the help of a neighboring property owner who is knowledgeable about ornithology and who saw the bird both in and around the house.

Black vultures are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Act, according to Gerta Deterer, director of Wildlife Rescue, a nonprofit organization that takes in injured or orphaned wildlife.

The United States government has penalties ranging from a fine to jail time for anyone who disturbs or attempts to relocate wildlife without permission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Deterer said it sounded to her as though Azola was obeying federal regulations.

"He's doing everything right," she said. "Letting her have her babies is wonderful."

"He's fine," agreed Wayne Jones, a captain with the Maryland Natural Resources Police. Once the eggs are hatched and the birds have moved from the mansion to another location, "he can board it up or renovate it. The bird doesn't own it. He just can't disturb the bird while it's in the egg-laying mode."

The presence of vultures in a city is a sign that the bird's traditional habitat is disappearing as outlying areas get developed, Deterer said.

"The natural environment is shrinking, so species go where the food sources are," she said. "The old trees and barns that used to be good habitats are gone. So wildlife has to scratch out a meager living trying to find a place to live. That drives them into the cities."

In some cases, she said, vultures feed off the road kill along highways. "Vultures are very smart birds," she said. "They're our cleanup crew."

But too often, she said, vultures get hit by cars themselves as they pick over dead animals on the road.

The 9,000-square-foot Ruscombe Mansion, recently designated a city landmark, was built as a companion to the nearby Cylburn Mansion at 4915 Greenspring Ave., part of the 207-acre nature and wildflower preserve known as the Cylburn Arboretum.

Ruscombe's builder, James Wood Tyson, was the younger brother of Jesse Tyson, who built Cylburn. Both were heirs to the Tyson Cos. of Maryland, which controlled the world's production of chromite and the manufacture of pigments used in leather tanning from 1827 to 1860.

Ruscombe Mansion was purchased by the city in 1973 and leased to the independent Waldorf School, which moved out in 1997. It has been vacant since then.

The city housing department sought a developer for the mansion in 2004 and selected Azola's firm after receiving several proposals. Azola plans to buy the mansion from the city and renovate it at a cost of $650,000, using state and federal tax credits for historic preservation.

Plans call for the exterior to be restored and for the interior to be renovated for non-residential uses compatible with the surrounding Coldspring community, such as office space for physicians and others. A separate carriage house is also targeted for renovation.

(Another building called the Ruscombe Mansion, which is smaller and houses a holistic treatment facility at 4801 & 4803 Yellowwood Ave., was constructed by the same family but is not part of Azola's renovation project.)

The larger mansion, surrounded by a subdivision called the Woodlands at Coldspring, could be a tremendous asset when restored because much of its original detail remains, Azola said.

"It shouldn't just be in the center of the community," he said. "It should be the centerpiece of the community, functionally and visually."

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

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