Preserve our heritage in Fells Point

May 10, 2006|By TYLER GEARHART AND JOSHUA PHILLIPS

After a five-year battle, the issue of new tall buildings threatening the unique character of historic Mount Vernon and the view corridor along Charles Street has recently been resolved. But residents of another of Baltimore's most beloved districts are battling the pending demolition of several historic buildings in the heart of their community.

St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church sits at the geographical center of Fells Point. The church and its associated structures form a full block bordered by Ann and Aliceanna streets. They are familiar to anyone who lives, works or plays in Fells Point, which was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.

The St. Stanislaus complex is an important part of one of America's best-preserved maritime communities and is treasured by the Polish community that enabled this close-knit neighborhood to survive and ultimately thrive over the course of the 20th century.

St. Stanislaus was built in 1889 to serve the growing Fells Point Polish community, which would become the largest ethnic group in Southeast Baltimore. The church complex served as the center of Catholic life in Fells Point and is a tangible connection to Baltimore's important history of immigration.

With the exception of the former convent, which houses the Mother Seton Academy, the buildings are vacant. The academy has an admirable record of providing individualized education to at-risk students and hopes to expand its programs in the coming years.

Since the Archdiocese of Baltimore closed the church in 2000, the future of the St. Stanislaus site has been the subject of debate between its owners and the Polish community. While much of Fells Point's historic fabric is protected, the 1.7 acres that constitutes St. Stanislaus was not included in the urban renewal plan that governs land use and design guidelines in the neighborhood.

The urban renewal plan was enacted after the neighborhood was saved from demolition for a new highway, a grass-roots effort that helped to launch the political career of Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

The current proposal by the owners and developers of the St. Stanislaus complex involves the demolition of all of the buildings except the church, which would be gutted to house the Mother Seton Academy.

These structures include the convent and friary along Ann Street and the assembly hall, the school and the last of Fells Point's 18th-century four-bay captain's mansions, which ties the complex to the maritime roots of the neighborhood and Baltimore. The plan calls for the construction of 23 luxury condominium units and 71 parking spaces, with portions of the proceeds going to the academy.

The Preservation Society commissioned a feasibility study by an architect, Richard Wagner, who is expert in the adaptive reuse of historic buildings. This study shows that the developer could still realize a profit while preserving the entire St. Stanislaus complex and leaving the beautiful sanctuary of the church intact. The development plan was not made public.

Opportunities for innovative thinking abound. Because of the dimensions of the site, there is space for compatible new construction alongside the historic structures. New structures on the interior of the block could be of greater scale without impacting their historic neighbors and would create new and dynamic living spaces with views of the Inner Harbor and downtown Baltimore.

Demolition has yet to begin, so there is still time to work together to create new unique living spaces in the heart of Fells Point without compromising the character that makes Fells Point special.

Like many of the neighborhoods ringing the harbor, Fells Point is experiencing an unprecedented economic upturn. Much of this revitalization is because of the quality of life offered by historic places, as evidenced by other neighborhoods such as Federal Hill, Butchers Hill and Canton.

A redevelopment of the St. Stanislaus site that preserves the historic character of the neighborhood, recognizes the cultural significance of the Polish community, brings new residents to Fells Point and accomplishes the goals of the developer is both ideal and feasible.

Tyler Gearhart is executive director and Joshua Phillips is director of preservation services for Preservation Maryland. Their e-mails are tgearhart@preservationmaryland.org and jphillips@preservationmaryland.org.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.