Rowhouse Decision Does Ill To Mercy's Image - And Piece Of Baltimore's Past

January 06, 2007|By JACQUES KELLY

The administrators of downtown's Mercy Medical Center have an unenviable task on their hands. Their decision to do away with that block of houses has annoyed Baltimore more than any other preservation issue has. It's no surprise that the preservationists are hot, and I get the impression that the broader community is ticked off, too, and wants to see Mercy do the right thing by keeping this piece of old Baltimore preserved -- intact, not just one little house.

This block is quintessential rowhouse Baltimore. It is also highly visible -- seen by a lot of people, constructed in a good-looking style, adding the bright note of distinction to a campus of otherwise antiseptic hospital buildings.

Over the past several decades, I quietly applauded the hospital's decision to occupy and employ this little complex of venerable and charming houses.

And when you get down to it, hasn't Mercy proclaimed itself an urban hospital? I often walk through its first floor as I use the hospital's services and observe the faces of the city. Indeed, the people in Mercy's lobby often remind me of a distinctly non-upscale Baltimore, the same Baltimore I knew years ago. I credit the hospital for staying put -- and happy -- in its historic location, one where expansion is difficult and demands tactful planning.

Mercy owns plenty of real estate, and I question whether this spot was the right place to put up another building. It's also true that after a period of downtown real estate stagnation, property values in the once-moribund neighborhood around the Orleans Street Viaduct have increased.

I am a great fan of those houses the administrators consider expendable. It seemed to me those little houses performed a subtle and effective job of advertising the hospital -- sitting next to its bland buildings, they proclaimed Mercy's city role more effectively than the green lighted signs and corporate logos the hospital has been adopting of late.

The houses set a tone of public service to Baltimore that no hunk of corporate architecture can achieve.

Over the years, I and other family members have been Mercy patients. My late mother and her friends volunteered more than 40 years ago in the fundraising effort to build its main tower.

Having known and respected so many members of the Sisters of Mercy over the years, I was frankly shocked at the demolition decision. Would they tear down their founder's red-brick house on Lower Baggott Street in Dublin? What of their years of work in the cities of the South?

I associate this tenacious religious order with Baltimore's history -- and always thought there was a synergy between the modern downtown hospital plant and this chunk of quaint St. Paul Place rowhouse property, a remnant of the old Federal neighborhood that once covered this end of Baltimore.

There is precedent. I'm also reminded of how the preservationists dogged Johns Hopkins officials to save the old Phipps Clinic -- and of how, now that it has been preserved, it has become an attractive entrance motif off Wolfe Street.

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