Building's primary ornament: nostalgia

September 19, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

The nostalgia-razzi gathered at Charles and Franklin in downtown Baltimore this weekend, their digital and cell phone cameras powered up, their murmurs of What a tragedy ... What a loss creating a mournful undercurrent. The 100-year-old Rochambeau, the subject of a long, but ultimately losing preservationists' battle, was going to be demolished, and Baltimore was losing another piece of its past, its architectural legacy, its very soul.

Or not. The demolition is probably the best career move the Rochambeau could make - surely it is going to be more beloved in memory than it ever was in reality.

The faded yellow apartment building that never merited a second glance was suddenly elevated when its owner, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, announced that it would be torn down.

Cue the outrage. Call the lawyers. Cling - reflexively and unquestioningly - to the past.

What am I missing here? This building was a sorry sight, at least in its final years. Whatever glory it once had was long gone, particularly after the street-level facade was swathed in some kind of aluminum siding-like covering that would be hideous in a suburban strip mall, let alone this prime block of Mount Vernon.

"There are preservationists who fall on their sword for any building," says Charles Belfoure, an architect and writer. "They feel anything that's old has to be saved."

Belfoure, who has written books on the Baltimore rowhouse and the design of bank buildings, considers the Rochambeau a "bread and butter" building without much architectural significance.

Baltimore's unconditional love of its past is charming, but it can be obsessive, if not downright suffocating sometimes.

Remember in 1999 when Haussner's announced it was closing - three-hour lines formed at the classic restaurant on Eastern Avenue, filled with people who hadn't been there in years, if ever, suddenly craving stewed rabbit and violently pink strawberry pie.

I'm certainly not immune to this attachment to the past. I still get a pang driving down 33rd Street and not seeing that curved Memorial Stadium wall with the stainless steel letters spelling out an ode to World War II vets. I would link arms with the like-minded to protect the Bromo Seltzer tower or Penn Station from a demolition crew.

I even live in a historic district, in a house that is older than the Rochambeau. Which isn't why it deserves to live while the Rochambeau dies. Rather, it has proven value: Someone - me - was willing to expend actual money rather than just sentiment on it.

I'm not a strict market-value person - I know value isn't measured solely monetarily. But the zeal to save the Rochambeau seems way outsized to its actual value.

Much of this, I suspect, is a reaction to the way the archdiocese handled the whole episode - not well, and certainly without transparency. It surreptitiously bought the building in 2001 and denied as recently as the following year that it had any immediate plans to tear it down. The operative word there would be "immediate."

But really, no one was surprised when the church announced newer and more immediate plans - to demolish the Rochambeau and create a prayer garden in its place. The apartment building was the final piece of the block on which its Basilica - a truly historic and architecturally significant cathedral - sits that the archdiocese brought under its control.

It had already announced it would move Our Daily Bread, the soup kitchen on the block that many blame for attracting vagrants to the area, to another location. Obviously, the archdiocese was going to clear the block one way or another to showcase the Basilica, currently undergoing a $32 million renovation in honor of its bicentennial.

It's an unfair face-off, but the poor Rochambeau didn't have a chance - an old apartment building versus the Roman Catholic Church's first cathedral on U.S. soil; a building designed by the almost forgotten Edward Hughes Glidden versus one by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the U.S. Capitol.

Supporters of preserving the Rochambeau say it could have been renovated and become a part of a lively streetscape. And there, the operative word would be "could." The time for that to have happened was before the church bought it - some forward-thinking developer maybe could have turned it into another Munsey or Standard, two downtown buildings that have been turned into plush living spaces.

But the fact is, no one did that. And now, that time has passed. Which is what time tends to do, even in Baltimore.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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