A city's treasures

February 08, 2007

Despite outrage over the fate of a cluster of 1820s rowhouses, Baltimore preservationists this week gave up their fight to save them from demolition by Mercy Medical Center. Their battle, however, was not in vain. It highlighted the need to expeditiously landmark Baltimore's premier historic buildings and ensure the public's say over the city's architectural legacy.

Baltimore Heritage's protest of the sly way the hospital removed demolition protections from the St. Paul Place buildings exposed the complicity of City Hall officials in stripping the "notable" status designation from the rowhouses without giving preservationists - and the public - a chance to contest the move.

It also embarrassed Mercy officials into a serious conversation about trying to save the buildings in some way. Several proposals were honestly discussed and researched; the same cannot be said of the City Council's handling of the matter and lack of transparency. But in the end, Baltimore Heritage's inability to sustain a costly legal fight and the expense of relocating the buildings or incorporating them into Mercy's proposed expansion tower trumped the belated effort to save them.

Baltimore Heritage, which had intended to take its fight to court if necessary, reluctantly recognized that at best it might only delay by a year the eventual fate of the 1820s houses. The properties, owned by Mercy since the 1970s, are among the last surviving homes of that era, and they figure in the history of Baltimore's African-American community.

With the demolition of the houses expected in the next two months, the city's Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation should get to work identifying other Baltimore buildings that deserve landmark status. Too few have been so designated in the last 20 years because of political opposition from property owners. The commission should be selective and judicious in its choices.

But what city residents have to realize is that Baltimore wouldn't be Baltimore without the Bromo Seltzer tower, the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, the Belvedere Hotel, the Edgar Allan Poe House, Mount Royal Station, City College and other unique buildings.

They aren't just real estate. They're part of the city's charm and character - and they deserve the city's attention.

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