Panel votes to protect Masons' site

Scottish Rite Temple on Charles St. would join landmarks list, despite owners' objection

September 12, 2007|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun architecture critic

Baltimore's preservation commission recommended yesterday that the Scottish Rite Temple of Freemasonry be added to the city's landmark list - the second month in a row the panel voted to protect a major building on Charles Street from demolition or alteration, even though its owners object to the designation.

The panel voted unanimously yesterday to add the Scottish Rite Temple to the landmarks list after hearing testimony from residents of the surrounding area and others - including at least one Mason - that the neoclassical building at 3800 N. Charles St. deserved landmark status.

The Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation also voted to add the building to a "special list" that gives the panel legal authority to approve or block any proposed changes to the building's exterior, effective immediately.

Last month, the commission took similar action to protect the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, a 1967 building whose owners also opposed landmark designation.

The votes are part of an effort by the commission to do more to protect buildings it deems worthy of preservation, by recommending landmark status even if the buildings' owners object.

The recommendation to make the Masonic temple a local landmark must be approved by Baltimore's Planning Commission, City Council and mayor before it takes effect, but the vote to add the building to a protection list for up to six months does not need approval from any other body.

In recent years, city officials issued demolition permits for several buildings that preservationists wanted to save, including a block of 1820s rowhouses near Mercy Medical Center and the 100-year-old Rochambeau apartments on Cathedral Hill, saying they had no choice because the buildings weren't protected by local landmark status.

"I'm thrilled," said Susan Talbott, board member of the Tuscany Canterbury Neighborhood Association and one of the speakers in favor of landmark designation. "This will give us six months during which nothing can be done without CHAP's approval."

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke asked the preservation commission to consider nominating the building after learning that the Masons, faced with declining membership and rising costs of upkeep, were thinking about selling the building and moving to a smaller space in Baltimore County.

Members have said they treasure the building and have no plans to tear it down or alter it. They say they oppose local landmark designation because that could narrow the field of potential buyers by limiting what a new owner might be able to do with the property.

With a large front portico and stone walls that evoke a Greek temple, the 1933 building was designed by Clyde N. Friz and Charles Friz, with John Russell Pope as a "consulting architect."

The building has ceremonial spaces, a fully equipped kitchen, a dining hall and a theater. The Freemasons use the temple for their meetings and rent it out for weddings, concerts and other events.

John Gontrum, an attorney representing the Masons at the hearing yesterday, said maintaining the building costs $246,000 a year, and the Masons are very concerned about its financial viability.

"We wish it would not be a landmark, but we understand you have a set of criteria you have to meet," Gontrum told the panel. He said after the votes were taken that the Masons will work with the city and surrounding community as they explore their options.

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

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