Mercy looks to tear down 1820s rowhouses

Hospital says it would be part of expansion effort

preservation groups likely to resist


The last of the downtown Baltimore rowhouses from the 1820s could be headed for demolition, a move preservation activists say would damage the historical uniqueness of the city.

"For a row of buildings like that to survive is terrific," said Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland. "That's what we're trying to preserve."

Though Mercy Medical Center would not comment on its plans for the buildings in the 300 block of St. Paul Place, city Planning Director Otis Rolley III said hospital representatives have met with him and indicated they are considering tearing down the buildings as part of a broader expansion effort.

Mercy announced in December that it intends to build a $292 million, 18-story patient tower in a separate location and to replace its existing operating rooms and surgical and medical beds by 2010.

Mercy owns five of the old rowhouses, which are primarily used as office space for hospital employees. Mercy officials are negotiating to buy the sixth from a private owner, who would not comment.

Gearhart said he recently met with a hospital representative about the rowhouses. Although Mercy's plans are in the preliminary stages, Gearhart - who is also chairman of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation - said he is inclined to oppose the destruction of property that has "a remnant of 19th-century specter and ambience."

The buildings are protected under the area's urban renewal ordinance. Mercy's proposal will have to detail how maintaining the properties is unfeasible to get the ordinance overturned by the Maryland Health Care Commission.

Once Mercy submits the proposal, the protective ordinance requires at least a 12-month waiting period before the city could approve the deal, according to Rolley.

"It is there to make sure demolition is not just on a whim," Rolley said.

Should Mercy have success with the Health Care Commission, the hospital will have another major hurdle in getting financing from the state's Historical Trust, according to Gearhart. Without financial help, the plans could become costly for the medical center.

Mercy's five orange-brick rowhouses take up nearly the entire block. Each has eight front windows, with three featuring 10-foot green doors, that overlook one of downtown's busiest streets.

Mercy purchased the buildings from individuals in the mid-1970s, according to Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage. One of the buildings housed the city's Department of Public Works from 1860 to 1950. Hopkins said the property was built by the government.

Along with Preservation Maryland, Mercy will likely see resistance from Baltimore Heritage, a historical and architectural preservation organization.

"It's unique for Baltimore," Hopkins said. "I can't think of any other city that has this set of buildings downtown. It's very unusual, and Mercy has done a good job of keeping them looking good."

Michael Evitts, spokesman for Downtown Partnership, said the organization has met with Mercy but has not seen any specific plans. Downtown Partnership supports Mercy's project.

"Mercy has been a good citizen and has made the neighborhood better," Evitts said. "They've been a leader in the renovation effort."

Should Mercy continue to pursue this initiative, it would be one of a handful of hot topics facing preservationists this year, including the Archdiocese of Baltimore's request to demolish the 100-year-old Rochambeau apartment building next to the Basilica of the Assumption.

"We understand the age-old struggle between progress and preserving history," Gearhart said. "But the protections are to make sure [buildings] are not knocked down because it's the path of least resistance.

"The urban renewal plan says it should be preserved. Mercy says it has no other options. At this point, I'm not convinced of that."

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