The Rochambeau feels the wreckers' touch as a long battle to preserve the structure ends

Building gives up ghost

September 17, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,sun reporter

He told himself not to do it, not to come by the Rochambeau yesterday. He knew it would hurt.

But Walter Schamu, a Baltimore architect who specializes in historic restorations, did come.

"I couldn't not see it for the last time," he said. "I'm almost in tears."

As a light morning rain fell, he sat a moment on steps across Charles Street from the 100-year-old apartment building. He watched a wrecking crew hired by the Archdiocese of Baltimore move in with heavy equipment, ready to clear the church-owned structure to make way for a prayer garden.

"It may be the cardinal's vision," Schamu said, "but it's a nightmare for Baltimore's architectural past - a huge mistake."

For more than a year, preservationists fought to stop the demolition, loath to lose a piece of old Baltimore and dismayed to see a parcel with residential potential fall out of commission in the struggling neighborhood.

But the church refused to back down, equally determined to remove the aged Rochambeau from the sightline of the Basilica of the Assumption. Though demolition opponents appealed all the way to Maryland's highest court, the church officially got an all-clear for the wrecking claw last week.

With that claw just feet away, archdiocese officials worried on the sidewalk yesterday, hoping, as they put it, to ward off any last-minute "issues" that could further delay the razing.

If it was protesters they were concerned about, they must have been relieved to find not a single one.

But spectators - there were dozens of those. They rolled in as early as 7 a.m., with cameras and coffee, ready to make a morning of it.

Patti Sue Nolan drove in from Lutherville with her husband, Terry, and her two children. "They're not going to have any more of these," she said, gazing at the Rochambeau. "You knock it down, you don't get it back."

Mary Brown of Mount Washington hustled down after she saw the demolition previewed on the morning news. "I hate to see pieces of Baltimore disappear," she said, "but everything has a life, so maybe it's time."

Named for a French commander in the American Revolution, the Rochambeau has stood at Charles and Franklin streets since 1905. The church estimates it will take six weekends of work to clear away the seven-story structure, with its russet-and-burnt-orange brick, touches of architectural finery and peeling butter-colored trim.

At 11:20 a.m., after crews wrapped caution tape around the idling crane, its operator hitched up his jeans, climbed in and gunned the motor.

As the huge machine chugged and snorted, the crowd squinted skyward to watch a three-pronged claw inch toward the Rochambeau's northeastern tip. The device grabbed the cornice in its jaw, pulled back and wrenched away a long piece of metal trim.

This, the first piece to go, hit the ground with a thud.

The crane moved in again. And again and again and again. The iron teeth bit off 100-pound mouthfuls of trim, roof, wood and brick, and then spit it all out onto the street, where the rubble piled into a sharp-edged heap.

Bits of material scraped from the building fell all the while like industrial confetti.

This demolition came without the modern pyrotechnics of an explosion - a big disappointment for some watchers. Not unlike the Rochambeau itself, the dismantling was functional and plain.

Even so, the building, steady and sturdy for a century, crumbled as if it were made of crackers.

Clare Milton of Ten Hills won't miss it. Milton spent his first Baltimore weeks there 55 years ago - and was less than impressed.

"It was a dump," he said, straining to fit the building and the crane into the frame of his digital camera.

About 50 years later, Mike Catelinet had more or less the same reaction after looking at a Rochambeau apartment. "I'm still waiting for someone to show me a reason it should be saved," he said.

If Catelinet had asked, Ric Carter would have offered him a reason. Or 20.

Every empty seat in Koffee Therapy, his Franklin Street coffeeshop, is a reason, he said. As is the boost of pride Baltimore takes from Mount Vernon's colorful architectural "quilt." For lovers of old buildings or those rooting for the Charles Street business strip, yesterday was simply painful, Carter explained.

"I'm really, really sad," he added. "I feel like they're about to beat a lovely old lady to death right in front of me."

So he propped up a chalkboard outside his store with a message:

"L'adieu fair Rochambeau," the sign read. "We're gonna miss ya girl."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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