Going, Going, Gone?

The Rochambeau isn't the only old Baltimore building in danger of demolition.

August 27, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,sun staff

Anyone paying attention to Baltimore preservation issues knows the century-old Rochambeau apartment building is in dire straits, with the Archdiocese of Baltimore determined to raze it for a prayer garden.

What people might not realize is how many other Baltimore buildings face similar predicaments.

Preservation advocates say that scores of structures across the city stand vulnerable to the whims of burgeoning downtown development and the decay of neglect.

"There have got to be hundreds," says Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage. "Maybe thousands."

These are buildings with architectural flourishes and charm and history to spare, but without the kind of landmark status that would save them should the wrecking ball come calling.

Just like the Rochambeau.

Because the archdiocese owns that Mount Vernon-area building, federal religious freedom safeguards complicate the situation and make it difficult to intercede in the planned demolition. But even with any other owner, the building could still be in trouble.

Although the Rochambeau, at Charles and Franklin Streets, appears to be well protected - it falls in both a national register historic district and a Baltimore urban renewal zone - that's not the case.

The national historic district designation only stops threats coming from state- or federally funded projects - like a planned interstate. And the city's urban renewal law offers property owners chances to prove their need for demolition.

"It's just a glaring example of what happens when you don't have a preservation plan," Hopkins says of the Rochambeau's situation.

Because the realm of register listings and landmark awards is not only complicated but also largely ceremonial, it is easy to mistakenly assume that buildings sporting such designations are safer than they are.

In Baltimore, the most powerfully shielded buildings are those with easements presided over by the Maryland Historical Trust. The organization claims easements in exchange for financial aid or as a condition of bond bills. Sometimes owners who want their buildings preserved for posterity donate the easements.

The next best hope for a structure is to be within a local historic district, like Mount Vernon or Bolton Hill. Unlike in national districts, to raze a building in a local historic district property owners must get the not-easily-won approval of Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.

Individual buildings deemed Baltimore City Landmarks - like the Peale Museum, the Washington Monument and the Bromo Seltzer Tower - enjoy a similar level of protection.

In activist-heavy parts of town, like Fells Point and Mount Vernon, people typically don't let historic structures come down without a fight. But in many other neighborhoods a worthy building could easily fall through the cracks, says Joshua D. Phillips, Preservation Maryland's director of preservation services.

"Anything can happen the way the development boom is going," he says.

Which is partly why Hopkins and other preservationists are campaigning for the city to adopt a more robust and measured protection plan. A 2004 city task force chaired by Council President Sheila Dixon seconded this motion.

First they'd like to catalog which buildings are preservation-worthy. Then they'd fix the laws to empower the city to save them.

"They do this in Paris and in London and in New York, it's not impossible," Hopkins says. "There's no way to do it all, probably. But if you look at, say, 100 [buildings], it's possible."

Here, with recommendations from Baltimore Heritage and Preservation Maryland, are six buildings in Baltimore that could easily become the next Rochambeau.

707 S. Regester St.

According to Baltimore Heritage, in 1798 about 400 wooden houses filled the part of Baltimore that's now Fells Point. By 1880, about a hundred of those were gone. And now, there are just eight - one of which is 707 S. Regester.

This privately owned home, which was built between 1790 and 1805, sits in the middle of an in-progress redevelopment effort at the St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church complex.

The developer's condominium plan does not include the house. But because the entire church complex sits in a pocket of Fells Point that's entirely without urban renewal protections, and because the home is not otherwise landmarked, a future owner could take it down at any time.

Sellers Mansion

This three-story home at 801 N. Arlington St. is the last of the free-standing "mansions" that once lined Lafayette Square in West Baltimore. When it was built in 1868 as a residence for the head of the Northern Central Railway, the brick home, with its carved stone details and patterned slate roof, was one of the most elite addresses in the city.

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